My belief is that in its specificity a story becomes universal. We’re talking about human beings here. We all are a lot more alike than different if we really get down to it.
Justin Chon is a man of many hustles. He’s an actor (most famously in the Twilight franchise as Eric Yorkie), a YouTuber, a clothing store owner, and a member of a spoof K-Pop band called Boys Generally Asian, all while building a career as an indie film director and screenwriter (Gook, Ms. Purple) focused on illuminating the Asian American experience. From the fun stuff to the earnest, he’s driven by the same singular personal desire to shine that empathetic light on the lives of Asian Americans. That desire is manifestly evident in the new feature, Blue Bayou, which he wrote and directed and in which he also stars. He plays Antonio LeBlanc, a Korean American tattoo artist who was adopted from Korea as baby and is now an adult living outside New Orleans, married with a child of his own on a way. After an altercation with two police officers—one of whom is the estranged father of his wife’s previous child—Antonio is stunned to learn he will face deportation.
While the story is fiction and might appear from a distance a somewhat obscure premise, it is based on the all-too-real plight of thousands of immigrant children in the U.S. who, despite being adopted by U.S. citizens and growing up thinking themselves U.S. citizens, face deportation as adults. This astonished Chon when he learned about it from a friend, and upon researching it further, he learned how technicalities and flaws in the Child Citizenship Act of 2000—a law four U.S. administrations have failed to fix—allows for these ongoing deportations. He turned his outrage into Blue Bayou, which dramatizes an example of how just such a case looks from the inside of the lives of the people involved. Chon brings the reality into further stark relief at the end of the film with a montage of some of the actual deportees’ pictures along with the dates of their original adoptions and subsequent deportations decades later.
In a Zoom interview with the Writers Guild of America West website, Chon discussed turning outrage into relatable cinema, why he thinks the universal appeal of any story comes through a balance of simplicity and specificity, and how he crafted Blue Bayou’s emotively potent, unexpected ending.
(Spoiler alert: The following Q&A contains key plot points from Blue Bayou.)
What were the beginning seeds of this script for you?
I have quite a few adoptee friends and I found out that this issue was taking place. Adoptees that are brought here as children who have no say in being adopted by U.S. citizens, and the government acknowledges and legally allows a child to be brought overseas...Then 20, 30 years later, they find out that they’re not American citizens because of loopholes and paperwork that weren’t filed. It was quite shocking and appalling. I just felt like nobody knew about it.
How did it come to your attention?
Well, I had an adoptee friend tell me that this was an issue that was happening. Then I started to look into it and read a few articles, and I realized that it was happening to quite a few adoptees. I tell films about the Asian American experience, and I bring empathy to Asian Americans mostly. My films are very inclusive, but the adopting experience is very much a part of the Asian American experience because the idea of international adoption originated in South Korea after the Korean War. That’s where it started, and it’s become something that’s traveled to all these other countries and become a big business. I know quite a few Korean American adoptees. It’s not uncommon, if someone's adopted from another country, for them to be Korean.
So, it’s something that’s always been in my sphere. I've grown up with Korean American adoptees. So right away when I heard this, I was like, “Geez, this is something that’s happening in my community that is crazy.” That’s how it kind of got on my radar. Then I decided this is really important that people know about because it’s unjust.
Absolutely. I understand how obviously that resonates with you and, of course, is resonant in a much larger way. How as a filmmaker and writer do you balance representing and bringing empathy to the Asian American community and telling a story that’s universal?
Well, my belief is that in its specificity a story becomes universal. We’re talking about human beings here. We all are a lot more alike than different if we really get down to it. We all are born into this world, have mothers and fathers, love, fights. If you look at my films, at the core of them, they’re very basic. Gook is about friendship. Ms. Purple is about your parents and dying parents. Everybody can feel that... Blue Bayou is about family. When you bring it down to those kinds of basic ideas, that’s what makes it universal. But when you are very specific about the storytelling, again, it becomes even more universal because it becomes authentic and real.
Then you look at somebody else that’s maybe not like yourself, but you’re like, I know what that feels like, I've been through that. Maybe not exactly in that manner or fashion…but it allows people to actually put their guards down, because they’re looking at something that they feel maybe is foreign for a second at first, but ultimately, they go, No, no, no, I can relate with this person. They just think it’s something that’s foreign to them until they really look at it.
You’re a SoCal kid. How quickly did you land on setting this story in the Louisiana Bayou? What brought you to the Bayou?
I picked Louisiana, New Orleans, for a number of reasons. I did land pretty quickly on it because there were some personal things that I wanted to do in New Orleans with the story. New Orleans as a city is so resilient. They deal with natural disasters all the time, but they manage to have such a beautiful spirit and they carry on. I felt like that was synonymous to who Antonio was, our main character. Also, there’s a huge Vietnamese enclave that’s located in New Orleans. You know, a lot of them came as refugees after the Vietnam War to Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. I wanted to get two Asian ethnicities in one film because we never see that. It’s usually relegated to one. We’re only allowed one. We never see each other interact on screen.
It’s a great, specific moment when Antonio eats Vietnamese food, and you realize he has never even seen it before.
Yeah, absolutely. Also, I wanted to see an Asian American just be normalized in this region, having a Southern accent and... because they exist. They’re very prevalent. I mean, Vietnamese people in New Orleans are very woven into the fabric of the community. You’d be hard pressed to find somebody who hasn’t had a bowl of Pho in New Orleans.
Immigrant adoption is a very sensitive subject. Was there any trepidation or sensitivity as far as how to tackle this subject matter without having firsthand experience, possibly being seen as exploitive, as a few people have suggested?
Yes, absolutely. I did have some trepidation and reservations. I’m not an adoptee. I’d never know what it feels like to be an adoptee, and I really took that into consideration. I truly am here to serve their story and their experience in this country. So, I had a lot of adoptee consultants read every draft of the film. A lot of their input ended up into the film. For example, one of the consultants told me that a big moment for adoptees is when you have your own child because that’s the first time you’re holding someone who is blood related to you. It’s a very emotional moment. That ended up in the film. There are numerous times that I took input that I put into the film, or things that were inaccurate that I changed.
I did everything I could in terms of due diligence and trying to do the research. But of course, there are going to be adoptees that are not satisfied or think that I’ve done it wrong. That’s something I have to accept because I am telling someone else’s story. It’s a very, very hard thing to take that on because...Like you said, I haven’t lived it.
I think it's about intention, right? That's what's important to me is I know what my intentions are and that I am trying to represent them or put their experiences on screen in an authentic manner.
Character-wise here, Denny is obviously just a terrible dude. He’s a bad guy. Ace [the police officer who has a child with Antonio’s wife] is bad out of the gate, but also much more nuanced...He’s the source of two super powerfully redemptive moments in the script. How difficult was it finding that balance with Ace?
Denny is pretty clear-cut, unlike everybody else, including the ICE agent. I always want to bring three-dimensionality to every character because that’s what makes it feel real. If you watch a documentary and you see a person on screen, they’re bringing everything that they are, and you see a true human being. For this narrative not to be a propaganda film, you have to treat characters fairly. And for Ace, he’s actually not a terrible guy. It’s just that we assume he’s a terrible guy. He’s trying to intrude on these people’s lives, but he’s justified in what he’s doing. He wants to see his daughter. He truly just wants to spend time with his daughter and be a part of his daughter’s life.
It’s just that we make these assumptions. That was the intention of the way I set it up, playing on our own biases. But it’s like an onion unfolding and you realize, Oh no, this guy also wants the same thing...what Antonio wants is for Jesse to be okay. Antonio has that realization, and it’s what allows him at the end of the film to be like, You know what, she’s in good hands. I’ve got to go on my own. But I wanted to treat every character fairly, and they all are justified in what they do. A character like Denny, he’s justified, but it’s maybe not the right justification.
And forgetting about fairness or justification, these complexities just make a better story…
Yeah. Exactly, because it’s not so clear cut. The most fascinating films, the most fascinating stories, always operate in the gray.
The ending is obviously a big moment for Ace and Antonio. Was that ending what you had in mind from draft one?
Yeah, you know what, that ending was pretty clear-cut. I knew I wanted Ace there. I knew I wanted him to do something that the audience wasn’t expecting. And I knew I needed for Antonio to make a choice that was maybe illogical for some people, but it was logical for him and his internal soul. What was actually hard in the scripting was the area where everything was crumbling and just completely going to shit. That area was really tough for me because I knew I wanted some cathartic moment with him riding that motorcycle in the water, but then, I’m like, wait, wait. But if it’s cathartic, how’s that going to feel like we’re at the end of the road? So actually, finessing that was the hardest in scripting and really just took a long time...To be honest, the mid-point until that point was really quite tough for me and took quite some time to figure out.
Did you get stuck for a minute with the writing?
Yeah, I would say I did. From the mid-point on I had to really sit on it for a while and keep restructuring it. Also, when I was filming it, I gave myself a few outs in case something didn't work. Just in case, because it’s an indie film, you’re not going to get pickups. You’re not going to get re-shoots. You’ve kind of got to protect yourself in that way. But yes, it took me a while. The mid-point to that, where you see Parker has now passed on. I was just like, Shit! It was quite tough. It took me a while.
You mentioned how you really wanted to serve these immigrant adoptees. How did that montage at the end of real adoptees who have been deported come to you and how did you put it together?
That came to me maybe mid-processes of editing. I just felt like, Okay, this film is effective, but people are still going to be able to walk away kind of scot-free. I felt like with these faces, it’s hard to deny that this is the real issue that was happening. I played with it a bit—is it going to be a statistic or is it just going to be faces or both? But I found that seeing real faces and when they’re adopted and when they’re deported really had the massive impact as far as what people felt walking out of that theater.
When, where, and how do you write? What’s your ritual? Do you have any quirks, music, places, times?
Four in the morning, a cup of coffee at a desk. Yeah, because I have a kid, so I need to get a good, maybe four or five hours in before she gets up. It’s when my mind is firing the best. I just got good sleep and then I’m kind of in still...what do they call it? A theta state or whatever, where you’re kind of still half in a dream state. But the main thing is I have to just start writing. I cannot overthink things. Then you spend the rest of the afternoon reading what you wrote and thinking about what you’re going to write next. Music-wise, I do sometimes listen to soundtracks or just no music at all. I just kind of live with my own thoughts.