Then he said, “The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath. –Mark 2:27
The bayou is all the man knows—or at least all he can remember. Standing on the water’s edge and looking out over the Mississippi River, Antonio LeBlanc (Justin Chon) feels a strange kind of peace. Sneaking a forbidden cigarette he’s sworn he’s quit, he reflects on a difficult life. Orphaned in Korea, he was adopted by white Americans who abused him for years. After escaping, he bounced around Louisiana, getting in and out of trouble with the law as he struggled to survive. But now, he’s reformed and finally found a life worth living—a hard one, but a good one. He’s married a kind woman named Kathy (Alicia Vikander) and fallen in love with being the step-father of her daughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske). Now the two have their own baby on the way, and though Antonio’s felony charges prevent him from getting a job besides piecemeal work at a tattoo parlor, the three are really and truly happy.
At least until ICE came knocking. Following an unjust arrest by a corrupt, power-tripping police officer, Antonio is scheduled for deportation after it’s discovered that his abusive foster parents never technically filed to naturalize him. He may be racially Korean, but America is all he’s ever known. But now because of a legal loophole he faces being separated from his family and sent to a country where he doesn’t even speak the language. Now he faces legal fees for an appeal he can’t afford and the specter of a future he can’t control. This is the plot to Justin Chon’s devastating melodrama Blue Bayou. Sound farfetched? It isn’t. In recent years the nativist politicization of America’s immigration system has led to an explosion of unjust rulings where countless citizens who were legally adopted from abroad as children in the 80s and 90s have been sent back to their “home countries” thanks to an aggressive, legalistic interpretation of the Child Citizenship Act of 2000. I say “countless” because the actual number of adoptees who’ve been deported has proven difficult to calculate. Blue Bayou alone was directly inspired by thirteen such cases.
The film itself is understandably difficult to sit through, both in its examination of an immigration system gone insane, a law enforcement system riddled with corrupt officers, and the psychological turmoil Antonio feels as a Korean-American who, despite his thick New Orleans accent, has never felt fully accepted by his white neighbors. There’s a lovely subplot where Antonio develops a friendship with a terminally ill Vietnamese refugee named Parker (Linh Dan Pham) whose extended family provides him with a glimpse of a possible life where his Asianness might complement his American identity instead of hindering it. But for him it’s not to be. All the justice system sees in him is a foreigner—and an illegal one, at that.
Blue Bayou is above all a damning indictment of a broken immigration system that’s been hijacked by bureaucrats who see the enforcement of the letter of the law as more important than actually helping people. The second chapter of Mark sees Jesus confront such corrupt authorities after a group of Pharisees condemn him and his disciples for picking and eating heads of grain on the Sabbath, a violation of one of their 613 laws extrapolated from the teachings of Moses. Jesus rebukes them, reminding them that King David once broke such a regulation when he and his army needed food. He continues by reminding them that the Sabbath—and by extension the laws associated with it—was made for humanity, not the other way around. Here Jesus argues that if following the letter of the law hurts the people it was meant to protect, then the law itself should be reconsidered or even ignored. What good are Sabbath laws if they keep the hungry feeling hungry! One can’t help but wonder what Jesus—himself a refugee whose family fled violence into a foreign country when he was a baby—would think of Antonio’s story. What, then, might Jesus think of the immigration system that victimized him? One can’t help but shudder.