Interview: Justin Chon on Adoption Blues

Justin Chon is a Southern California boy, making waves this year on the festival circuit with his conversation-starting film, “Blue Bayou.”  Chon wrote and directed and stars in this film about a man who unexpectedly finds out that he’s not as American as apple pie: His adoption at the age of three, didn’t come with US citizenship and he faces deportation.

Set in Louisiana, the film focuses on tattoo artist Antonio LeBlanc who is fighting deportation to stay in the US with his pregnant White American wife (Oscar-winning Swedish actress Alicia Vikander) and stepchild, Jesse. For those familiar with Chon, you already know that he has some real tattoos and has even talked about them. 

In a recent Zoom interview, Chon revealed, “I actually got the tattoo that Jesse (Sydney Kowalske) tattoos on my hand really tattooed on my body. We kind of planned it.” Chon’s daugher’s name starts with an “A” so the “A + J forever” is reversed, he explained, “I named the characters Antonio and Jesse. I got that tattoo by my wife in our hotel bathroom while we were shooting. I’m ghetto like that.”

“The Twilight Saga” alum continued, “I’m not professional (tattoo artist), but I know how. My wife definitely knows how. I had another tattoo on my chest that I was going to cover up anyway so I asked a tattoo artist that wasn’t my wife to just do the outline of the coverup across my entire chest and I chose the style of tattoo which was American traditional on purpose because I feel like I don’t give a shit what these tattoos mean any more. I’m over trying to be secret about it.  Also, this one on the left, I didn’t like it any more anyways.”

The tattoos on his Antonio character are an essential part of his character because Antonio “has the most American tattoos you could possibly think of.” Chon added, “It’s just ironic that all his tattoos are that style, but his face is Asian.” 

The film includes a scene that will strike many Asian Americans as familiar.

Chon said, “Being Korean-American, it’s quite a unique experience. In America, people ask: ‘Well, where are you from?’ Like they never assume that you’re just from America. I was born in the United States. I was born in California. And then you go to where it’s supposed to be where you’re from, when that’s what they’re asking for you. And they don’t consider you from that particular place either. When I go to Korea, they consider me American. No, you’re not actually Korean. You’re American. So it brings up this idea: Where are you actually from?”

Chon said, “I started hearing about it (deportation of adoptees) from adoptees because I have quite a few adopted friends. Then I started seeing a bunch of articles and videos come out about them. There was a particular article in the New York Times that talked about Phillip Clay and Monte Haines and an array of people who were either facing deportation or had already been deported. So that was a very important article to get started. Then I consulted with an immigration attorney. I started hearing about it through the community in the beginning.”

In 2017, the New York Times reported that Clay, who was adopted by an American family in Philadelphia at 8, had committed suicide at age 42 in Seoul. He had been deported in 2012. Haines, who was deported in 2009 after being brought to the US for adoption in 1978.

Chon didn’t know any of the deportees personally, but he did try to make sure there was a sense of authenticity to his script by consulting people involved with the issue. Chon said, “Kristopher Larsen, who we contacted before we shot the film, we had him look at the script and definitely had a lengthy conversation with him” Larsen is listed on LinkedIn as the executive director of Adoptees for Justice. He was adopted from a Vietnamese orphanage in 1975. According to the Adoptees for Justice website, he escaped Saigon during the US military Operation Babylift and was raised in Alaska. According to a Korean Quarterly article from earlier this year, Larsen was not deported because it was “prohibited by a Memorandum of Understanding between the US and Vietnam.”

Asked why he set the film in Louisiana, the Southern California-born Chon said, “I felt that I hadn’t seen Asian Americans portrayed in the South in a substantial way. It’s usually on the coast. I wanted to see a different representation of our experience. Being Asian American in the South is very different from being Asian American in Los Angeles. You deal with different things. It questions  what constitutes an American and it really brings that to the forefront when you see it represented in this way. Also, I wanted to get two Asian American cultures in one film. Vietnamese refugees, a lot of them were placed in the South after the war, so Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi in addition to San Jose and California. I wanted to represent that community as well.” 

Chon felt that Louisiana was also offered a very interesting culture of its own, explaining, “New Orleans is like no other place in the United States. It’s like its own country.  It’s very diverse, but in a different way than metropolitan cities. It feels very French-inspired. There’s French vocabulary mixed in their dialogue. In that area, those people are so resilient. Through all of the hurricanes and everything, even with all of that hardship, they still managed to be kind.” This kindness despite adversity is something Chon wanted his character, Antonio, to embody.

Chon himself has been to South Korea. The University of Southern California graduate studied at the Yonsei University in Seoul. Unlike his character, Antonio, Chon has Korean language skills. “I’m pretty fluent, but even then people can pick up my accent and know I’m not Korean.” 

What he found in South Korea was a disconcerting self-discovery. He explained, “My experience going back to Korea, it made me very confused: Where I was supposed to be from and where I was supposed to be. It’s the grey area of being Asian American, not having a place where you can consider your home. Is home where you set down roots or where you create your own family? That is a very deep conversation that I think it raises.”

This is also part of the drama of the film “Blue Bayou.” His experience in Seoul was “a kernel” into Chon’s understanding how it feels like to be an adoptee like Antonio who in the film is trying to figure out where he belongs. 

Having lived in Seoul, Chon said the prospect of someone like Antonio returning as an adult without any language skills would be “absolutely terrifying” because, he said,  They’re a homogeneous society. It’s not like a lot of people speak English.”

At the end of the film, there’s a list of adoptees who have been or are facing deportation. According to the film: 

No official statistics are available on how many adopted people face deportation.

The Adoptee Rights Campaign estimates that 25,000 to 49,000 children who were legally adopted by US citizens between 1945 and 1998 may lack citizenship.

That number is increasing to a new total of 32,000 to 64,00 adoptees without citizenship between 2015 and 2033, as children adopted between 1999 and 2016 reach their 18th birthdays.

“Blue Bayou” made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival 13 July 2021 and will be released by Focus Features on 17 September 2021.  

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