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“Someone Needs to Shed Light On This Issue”: Justin Chon on His Adoptee Deportation Melodrama, Blue Bayou

Justin Chon first came to the world’s attention playing Eric Yorkie, a supporting character in the Twilight movies. The global success of that young-vampires-in-love franchise helped Chon land lead roles in films such as 21 & Over, Revenge of the Green Dragons, and Seoul Searching, but all the while, the freshly minted movie star was honing his craft as a writer and director. First came 2015’s little-seen Man Up (“That was my film school”), then the breakthrough of Gook, which won the NEXT Audience Award at Sundance in 2017. A bracing look at the 1992 Rodney King riots from a Korean American perspective, Gook showed off Chon’s distinctive strengths as a filmmaker: energetic and emotionally charged storytelling, big-hearted humanism, and a keen eye for both vivid social detail and the poetry of everyday life. Ms. Purple followed in 2019, a gentler but still turbulent tale of a broken family in LA’s Koreatown trying to heal itself.

Chon’s latest feature, Blue Bayou, tells the story of Antonio LeBlanc, a Korean American adoptee who runs afoul of the law and faces deportation to a birth country he only dimly remembers. Blue Bayou is a stirring melodrama grounded in precisely observed naturalism — the cast, led by Chon as Antonio and Alicia Vikander as Antonio’s wife Kathy, is uniformly excellent, and the working-class New Orleans setting shimmers with light and heat. The movie premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section in July, and Focus Features releases it in the U.S. tomorrow, September 17.

Filmmaker: I understand that you’d read some stories about real-life deportees and that was what kicked off the idea for the film.

Justin Chon: Yeah. I started hearing through the community and through a series of articles that this was happening, and I thought it was incredibly unjust, and I felt like, Okay, someone needs to shed light on this issue. That was five years ago, and the movie’s just coming out now.

Filmmaker: The film feels very lived in, and it’s very geographically specific. How did you do the research? And why the South, why Louisiana?

Chon: I had an immigration lawyer consultant, and from the adoptee side of it, I had a bunch of different people that I consulted with. I wanted to make sure that the adoptee experience was authentic. The reason for putting it in New Orleans — well, there’s a few reasons. A lot of [Asian] adoptees get placed in the South, and it’s a place that I think would be tougher to grow up in as an adoptee rather than Los Angeles or New York, where there are more people that look like you. And I wanted to get two Asian American ethnicities in one film, and New Orleans has a huge Vietnamese population. I wanted the main character, who’s Korean, to see what maybe his life could be like if he returned home, through an adjacent Asian culture. It feels like usually films about Asian Americans can only handle one ethnicity, and I don’t know why that is. Also, I’ve never seen an Asian American with a Southern accent in a film, in a substantial way that normalized it. And you know, New Orleans is a very resilient place, and I feel like that really captured the essence of Antonio as well.

Filmmaker: Had you spent a lot of time in New Orleans prior to working on the film?

Chon: Yeah. I shot a few films there, and I dated somebody from the West Bank for quite a while, so I spent a lot of time and have a lot of friends there.

Filmmaker: It was a fascinating choice to have the character of Parker [a Vietnamese immigrant played by Linh-Dan Pham] be, as you put it, Antonio’s introduction to Asian culture. There’s an argument I’ve heard, even from some Asian Americans, that the idea of Asian American identity is a social construct — you go to Asia and Asians don’t think of themselves as one group. But the way you depicted the characters’ relationship in the film shows that despite the differences in language, nationality, ethnicity, there are these commonalities.

Chon: I mean, everybody’s entitled to how they feel about identity, because it’s a personal thing, but I can only speak through my filter, and I think there are a lot of commonalities — and some differences. Just the mere fact that someone looks more similar to you, that in itself is something that’s undeniable. And my goal is to share and illuminate all of our experiences, not just my own. The current film I’m making right now is about an Indonesian father and son, and I think that’s just as important as me telling stories about my own personal ethnicity. As much as people might say that we’re not all the same, we do share a lot of experiences as Asian Americans in this country.

Filmmaker: It’s a social-issue film, but the experience of watching it is not remotely didactic or preachy — it’s driven by character and setting and mood. How do you find that balance between having something you want to say, and the need to make it a fully realized dramatic piece?

Chon: For me it always comes down to what the purpose of the film is. For this particular film, that was bringing empathy to an adoptee who’s going through this process. And the next consideration was, Well, if I’m going to do that, we have to make him human, so he needs to be flawed, he can’t be a saint. And I think that’s the balance. That’s what steers you away from making a propaganda film — you’re trying to get to the truth of things. Making sure I did my research and vetting it with people who are from that area, and with adoptees whose experiences I would never understand; running the script by them and having them weigh in on the way I’m portraying their experience, while still trying to have it be a film and not just a documentary.

Filmmaker: What’s the rehearsal process like? You have a child actor [Sydney Kowalske, who plays Chon’s stepdaughter], you have veteran actors like yourself and Alicia Vikander, you have some nonprofessionals mixed in there too. How do you get this team of actors with very different backgrounds to gel as a unit?

Chon: Specifically that: through rehearsals. You get together and any issues, anything that may not be vibing in you, you discuss it and you work it out. For Sydney in particular, it was just us spending a lot of time together. We talked about why this scene exists and how she feels about things, rather than just running lines — that’s not helpful for a child, and it becomes robotic. It’s more about her understanding her emotions and understanding what’s going on and having her process scenes like that. With the other characters like Ace, or Q and Merk, it was about making us feel like a unit, rehearsing the scenes and spending time together to make ourselves feel comfortable and feel like actual friends. I think rehearsal’s very important in film. I don’t think it’s done enough, and it’s not allotted [in the budget], so you have to find roundabout ways to get it in.

Filmmaker: You worked with your regular longtime DP [Ante Cheng], and you also brought in a second DP [Matthew Chuang] as well. Can you talk about the reason for that, and how you guys worked together to develop the visual aesthetic for the film?

Chon: Ante was working at the time we got greenlit, so I brought in Matt. Then Ante became available, and I wanted to create this sort of brain trust. I asked Matt if it was okay and he and Ante agreed to it and it just became this collective. I had developed a lot of the look that I wanted for the film early on with Ante, and Matt was in line with everything, and it was a party, you know? It was very fulfilling working with both of them, because I respect both of them deeply.

I always wanted the film to be shot in 16[mm]: very visceral, very raw and unadulterated, using natural lighting, barely even any flags or negs. A lot of it is just what’s coming through the windows or what’s happening outside — that was the philosophy for the film. We shot a lot of golden hour and early mornings, and stayed indoors for high noon. The opening scene is inspired by Ektachrome photography, war photographs from the Vietnam War, we used that look there and in other sequences. We used hand-cranking and step-printing at times. Most of the film is hand-held because we wanted it to feel real and accessible, and then we also have moments of lyricism, heightened moments where we play with color a bit. We had Tom Poole, who’s an incredible colorist, grade the film and do the DI, and he just knows how to work with film and play to its strengths.

Filmmaker: It felt like a combination in some ways of Gook and Ms. Purple — the vérité realism of Gook but with these dreamy, stylized passages that reminded me of Ms. Purple.

Chon: Yeah. I think as you develop, you sort of find a voice, and those are both things that turn me on. I love drama, I love realism, and neorealism, and I also love those poetic moments. Some people might think tonally it’s all over the place, but that’s just what turns me on. And ultimately if I don’t make the film for myself in terms of what gets me excited, I don’t know how I could possibly ask anyone else to get excited about it.

Filmmaker: How was your experience working in television? [Chon recently shared directing duties with Kogonada on Apple TV+’s adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s acclaimed novel Pachinko.]

Chon: It was incredibly fulfilling, in that you’re telling a story that spans over much more screen time so you can get into individual characters a lot more. More specifically, I really believed in the message for Pachinko. I loved the novel. It’s an immigration story told from a different perspective, and me being Korean, I wanted to make that TV show for my grandmother, hearing her stories growing up about when Japan occupied Korea and her coming to the United States during that time. For those reasons, it’s very special for me. The process of TV is quite tough. It’s quite dense and you’re trying to do a lot in a little time. I don’t know right now if I’ll do it again. It was intense. We shot in two different countries, in three different languages. Casting during a pandemic from different countries was so complicated, and then shooting during a pandemic was extremely challenging, extremely taxing — that’s my specific experience with television, so I don’t know what it’s like outside of the pandemic. I’m glad I went through it because on this film I’m doing now, nothing is as hard as what I was doing for Pachinko.

Filmmaker: What’s the film you’re making right now?

Chon: It’s called Jamojaya. It’s about an Indonesian father and son. The son is a rapper and he’s about to blow up in the United States. The father is the manager, and the son has just fired his father and hired a new manager and signed with a new record label, so the film is essentially a breakup story between a father and son. It’s a story about Southeast Asians, and again, I’m trying to represent all of us rather than just telling my own story, because I think there’s a need to use my platform in that way. Rich Brian, an actual Indonesian rapper, is playing the main character, and this really talented Indonesian actor named Yayu Unru is playing his father. I’m incredibly fortunate that I get to make this movie. It’s hard to get the funding for these types of films.

Filmmaker: Your career as a writer/director is flourishing. Do you still have the same passion for acting, or do you find that writing and directing are closer to your heart now?

Chon: I love creating. Whether that’s in acting, writing — all of it is exhilarating. It’s just that the business of acting is for me not as enticing. The whole process of auditioning is quite draining, and now that I have a family, it’s just not conducive to how I want to live my life. Writing and directing, I have more autonomy and I can live where I want to live, and I don’t have to be in a [specific] location because of auditions. I haven’t fallen out of love with acting. It’s just that I want to work with people who want to work with me, and if I’m invited, I’ll be there. Or if I’m really compelled to act in something that I create. It’s more about putting life first. I don’t want to miss out on my kid’s life, and as an actor, you’re never home. You’re living out of hotels because nothing shoots in Los Angeles — I live in Hawaii now but everything’s in Vancouver, Toronto, Atlanta, New Mexico, and when do I get the time to take my kid to school and all that? At least with directing, I can’t possibly direct more than one thing a year, or more likely one thing every two years, so I’m around a lot more and I can still be an artist. Those considerations weigh very heavily on what I’m engaging in.

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