At the Cannes Film Festival in July, a journalist from the Netherlands thanked the director and star Justin Chon for his movie, which centers on a Korean American adoptee. Chon isn’t actually adopted like his subject, Louisiana bayou-bred Anthony LeBlanc, whom he plays in the movie. The film premieres Sept 17th.
LeBlanc is a tattoo artist with a criminal record. Like many adoptees in the real world, LeBlanc was never naturalized and risks being sent to a country he barely knows, prompting questions around citizenship, belonging, family — and who gets to be considered American.
Chon said his Korean heritage and the experiences of friends in his immediate community in part compelled him to examine the issues surrounding international adoption. The practice began during wartime “babylifts” after World War II and subsequent conflicts when the U.S. asserted its power in part by “rescuing” orphans from communism to demonstrate its goodwill.
In 1955, the practice was further formalized when an evangelical couple, Henry and Bertha Holt, successfully advocated for the right to adopt Korean “war orphans” through an act of Congress. The couple later launched Holt International Children’s Services, the first large-scale international adoption organization. Foreign born babies those adopted by US parents before 2000 weren’t automatically granted citizenship.
Chon said that to bring the sort of tenderness and care the subject deserved, he first pored over research and news articles about similar cases. One of the most publicized was the deportation of Adam Crapser, who was adopted from South Korea. He endured abuse and later abandonment by two sets of adoptive parents, none of whom filed for his citizenship. Crapser, who had several arrests on his record, was deported in 2016.
Variety wrote in a review that “Justin Chon’s Blunt-Force Melodrama Takes on the Injustices of America’s Immigration System.” The system is the system, and its rules and loopholes exist to punish more than they protect. The movie holds little back as it rails against the cruelties and hypocrisies of American immigration law to stirring effect.
At the film’s outset, it’s clear LeBlanc has turned his life around from rough beginnings. Having spent his childhood passed from one adoptive and foster family to another, and having endured a stint in prison for motorcycle theft, he has finally found emotional stability in the home he shares with Kathy and Jessie, her daughter from a previous relationship, who regards him adoringly as her true dad.
“Where are you really from?” It’s an invasive question that’s awfully familiar to people of color, one that intrudes its way into our everyday lives. Though it can have innocent intentions, it’s often hostile and only works to invalidate your livelihood. You don’t really belong here, is the true meaning that lurks under that query. As the closing titles inform us, tens of thousands of adoptees have been deported from the United States, thanks to an exploited loophole in a law that only protects children born after 1983.
What Blue Bayou does wonderfully in quiet moments is illustrate that being Asian is not a one-size-fits-all identity but a vast tapestry of different cultures. I’ve not seen this movie yet, of course, but I think I would like to. New Orleans holds a special place in my heart. My maternal grandmother went there to try to convince Georgia Tann to give her baby girl back to her but it failed and my mom was taken to Nogales Arizona by her adoptive mother.