By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Culture Writer
Justin Chon is a Southern California boy, making waves this year on the festival circuit with his conversation-starting film, Blue Bayou. Chon wrote and directed and stars in this film about a man who unexpectedly finds out that he’s not as American as apple pie: His adoption didn’t come with US citizenship and he faces deportation.
Set in Louisiana, the film focuses on tattoo artist Antonio LeBlanc who is fighting deportation to stay in the US with his pregnant White American wife (Oscar-winning Swedish actress Alicia Vikander) and stepchild, Jesse. For those familiar with Chon, you already know that he has some real tattoos and has even talked about them.
In a recent Zoom interview with AsAmNews, Chon revealed, “I actually got the tattoo that Jesse (Sydney Kowalske) tattoos on my hand really tattooed on my body. We kind of planned it.” Chon’s daugher’s name starts with an “A” so the “A + J forever” is reversed, he explained, “I named the characters Antonio and Jesse. I got that tattoo by my wife in our hotel bathroom while we were shooting. I’m ghetto like that.”
The tattoos on his Antonio character are an essential part of his character because Antonio “has the most American tattoos you could possibly think of.” The Twilight alum added, “It’s just ironic that all his tattoos are that style, but his face is Asian.”
Chon started hearing about the deportation of adoptees through adopted friends and numerous news reports. An article from the New York Times talked about Phillip Clay and Monte Haines and an array of people who were either facing deportation or had already been deported. Lin then consulted with an immigration attorney.
In 2017, the New York Times reported that Clay, who was adopted by an American family in Philadelphia at 8, had committed suicide at age 42 in Seoul. He had been deported in 2012. Haines was deported in 2009 after being brought to the US for adoption in 1978.
Chon didn’t know any of the deportees personally, but he did try to make sure there was a sense of authenticity to his script by consulting people involved with the issue.
“Kristopher Larsen, who we contacted before we shot the film, we had him look at the script and definitely had a lengthy conversation with him.”
Larsen is listed on LinkedIn as the executive director of Adoptees for Justice. He was adopted from a Vietnamese orphanage in 1975. According to the Adoptees for Justice website, he escaped Saigon during the US military Operation Babylift and was raised in Alaska. According to a Korean Quarterly article from earlier this year, Larsen was not deported because it was “prohibited by a Memorandum of Understanding between the US and Vietnam.”
Asked why he set the film in Louisiana, the Southern California-born Chon said, “I felt that I hadn’t seen Asian Americans portrayed in the South in a substantial way. It’s usually on the coast. I wanted to see a different representation of our experience. Being Asian American in the South is very different from being Asian American in Los Angeles. It questions what constitutes an American and it really brings that to the forefront when you see it represented in this way.”
Chon also wanted two Asian American cultures represented in his film. Vietnamese are the largest Asian American group in Louisiana, so it made sense to him to add Vietnamese characgters.
The director felt that Louisiana was also offered a very interesting culture of its own, explaining, “New Orleans is like no other place in the United States. It’s like its own country. It’s very diverse, but in a different way than metropolitan cities. It feels very French-inspired. There’s French vocabulary mixed in their dialogue. In that area, those people are so resilient. Through all of the hurricanes and everything, even with all of that hardship, they still managed to be kind.” This kindness despite adversity is something Chon wanted his character, Antonio, to embody.
Unlike his character, Antonio, Chon has Korean language skills and considers himself pretty fluent. The University of Southern California graduate studied at the Yonsei University in Seoul.
What he found in South Korea was a disconcerting self-discovery. He explained, “My experience going back to Korea, it made me very confused: Where I was supposed to be from and where I was supposed to be. It’s the grey area of being Asian American, not having a place where you can consider your home. Is home where you set down roots or where you create your own family? That is a very deep conversation that I think it raises.”
This is also part of the drama of the film Blue Bayou. His experience in Seoul was “a kernel” into Chon’s understanding how it feels like to be an adoptee like Antonio who in the film is trying to figure out where he belongs.
Having lived in Seoul, Chon said the prospect of someone like Antonio returning as an adult without any language skills would be “absolutely terrifying” because, he said, They’re a homogeneous society. It’s not like a lot of people speak English.”
At the end of the film, there’s a list of adoptees who have been or are facing deportation. According to the film:
No official statistics are available on how many adopted people face deportation.
The Adoptee Rights Campaign estimates that 25,000 to 49,000 children who were legally adopted by US citizens between 1945 and 1998 may lack citizenship.
That number is increasing to a new total of 32,000 to 64,00 adoptees without citizenship between 2015 and 2033, as children adopted between 1999 and 2016 reach their 18th birthdays.
Blue Bayou made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in July and will be released by Focus Features on September 17, 2021.
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