‘Blue Bayou’s’ immigrant tale turns from naturalism to melodrama

Michael O’Sullivan

THE WASHINGTON POST – In Blue Bayou, what begins as an affectingly unfussy immigrant story centering on a New Orleans tattoo artist – brought from South Korea to the United States (US) for adoption as a child, but without proper paperwork, and now facing deportation in his 30’s, after his citizenship status comes to light – is unable to sustain its nuanced, naturalistic tone.

Writer, director and star Justin Chon (Ms Purple) keeps adding layer upon layer of drama – make that melodrama – to the narrative, stuffing it with filigrees of backstory and unnecessary incidents until his film ultimately climaxes, and collapses, in an implosion of emotional excess.

Chon plays Antonio, who lives with his wife, Kathy (Alicia Vikander), and his stepdaughter Jessie (an adorable Sydney Kowalske). Kathy and Antonio are expecting their own child, but Jessie sees Antonio as her “real” daddy – and vice versa – because the girl’s biological father, a police officer named Ace (Mark O’Brien), has until recently been completely out of the picture. As the tale gets underway, Ace is seeking visitation, so far unsuccessfully.

The deportation process kicks in after an over-the-top encounter at the grocery store between Antonio and Ace’s partner (a florid caricature of racism delivered by Emory Cohen) leads to Antonio’s arrest. Antonio’s prior convictions for theft weigh heavily against him, but the family sets out to assemble a lineup of character witnesses who might possibly sway a sympathetic judge.

Sydney Kowalske and Justin Chon in ‘Blue Bayou’
Chon plays Antonio, who lives with his wife, Kathy (Alicia Vikander), and his stepdaughter Jessie. PHOTO: FOCUS FEATURES

Chon is low-key great here, as is Vikander, whose only misstep is her overly polished, overly professional delivery of the Roy Orbison song that lends the film its title, in the context of a backyard party. And Antonio’s chance encounter with a Vietnamese immigrant and terminal cancer patient (Linh Dan Pham), which leads to a sweet friendship – and a couple of symbolic tattoos – unspools with great sweetness and sensitivity.

But Chon’s mounting narrative miscalculations keep piling up: Antonio has lied about his past in foster care, it turns out, and dark secrets emerge; he slips up in his attempt to stay on the straight and narrow path when he learns what his attorney’s fees will be; and a savage beating – on the eve of his legal hearing, no less – threatens his future.

There are other examples of superfluous storytelling – told both in flashback to Korea and in the present – but it’s pointless to enumerate them all.

It’s a shame, really, because a story about adoptees facing the prospect of – or already having suffered – deportation is one worth telling. On-screen closing titles cite statistics, and show some of the names and faces of those who are – or who have been – in predicaments like Antonio’s. In Blue Bayou strikes a nerve, of that there is no doubt.

But then it keeps poking at it, pointlessly.