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Justin Chon Explains the Blood Memory Coursing Through ‘Blue Bayou’

We chat with the director about his new film and how he hopes to change the hearts and minds of those watching.
Blue Bayou Justin Chon
Focus Features
By  · Published on September 21st, 2021

Check the Gate is a reoccurring column where we go one-on-one with directors in an effort to uncover the reasoning behind their creative decisions. Why that subject? Why that shot? In this edition, we chat with Justin Chon about cinematic power and how Blue Bayou can change hearts and minds.

Some stories bowl you over. They enter your brain and just sit there, refusing to move, and the longer they stay, the heavier they become. You don’t necessarily want to kick them out, but you can’t let them pace the floor bumping from wall to wall. In the end, you need others to meet these stories. You need to take control of their future and your sanity.

When Justin Chon read about the adoptees who entered this country as children, were raised by white parents, with no memory of their biological point of origin, only to be rounded up and deported by the U.S. government, he was thunderstruck. The devastation he experienced could not exist only in his person. He had to know it deeper. He had to mold it and share it.

Blue Bayou is his scream. Chon is reaching out, gripping his audience by their shoulders, and begging them to look with eyes wide open. Placing himself in front of the camera as well as behind, Chon expelled the story from his person, hoping others would feel its slap as much as he did when he originally encountered this particular American tragedy through the newspaper.

Changing Hearts and Minds

Chon crafted Blue Bayou to confront the tale that plagued his mind, but such confrontation also demanded further human connection. The film is the director extending himself beyond his screen and into the lives of those watching. There’s a conversation in process, and he believes he can crack open the audience’s soul and impact their journey going forward.

“I think hearts and minds can be changed,” says Chon. “That’s my hope in filmmaking. It’s the reason why I do what I do. If there cannot be change, if there’s no hope for change, that’s quite sad and pessimistic for me. I’m not trying to force people to change their minds. I’m just presenting a different viewpoint. I’m trying to create empathy, and I think that’s absolutely possible.”

Chon can easily reach back into his past and find the films that uncorked something in his very being. He remembers watching Moonlight for the first time and coming to the sudden realization that he desperately needed that movie at the point in which he saw it. He recalls the work of Wong Kar-wai and John Cassavetes and how their art rewrote his DNA. And he can pinpoint an early childhood experience that shaped him into the filmmaker he is today.

“I remember watching A Perfect World,” he continues, “directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Kevin Costner. I was young, and I was at camp, and we all watched it. I don’t even know if that’s necessarily an appropriate film for kids, but I watched it. And that father-son relationship, albeit through a jailbird and a kidnapped kid, got me. At the end, I started crying so hard. All the kids were making fun of me, but thinking back, it’s awesome that you can use these universal themes, and twelve-year-old me can be affected so bad; it made me so emotional. It’s a powerful medium. It can stay with you. Movies can change your perception and change you forever.”

The Visceral and Raw World of Blue Bayou

With a strong belief in cinema’s profound emotional impact, Chon studied the visual language of those filmmakers who dug their claws into his person. As Blue Bayou tumbled through his brain, John Cassavetes rattled right there alongside it. Chon’s earliest conversations with his cinematographers Ante Cheng and Matthew Chuang swirled around the cinematic maverick’s aesthetic.

“Cassavetes’ films feel so visceral and raw,” says Chon. “They’re naturally lit and handheld. That’s what I wanted to do. That’s why we shot in 16mm. I wanted a very visceral, tangible experience. So, if you watch the film, sometimes you see hair in the gate, but I did everything to make it very real and authentic.”

The word “raw” continuously pops up in conversation. Chon flees from artifice, wanting to be as far away from Hollywood as he possibly can. It’s an escape made possible by simply existing in his shooting location, but even in picking New Orleans, he didn’t want to shoot it the way other films tend to use the city.

“New Orleans is very American,” he says, “But also very something other than the coastal cities like Los Angeles and New York. It’s a very raw town. It’s very diverse but diverse in a different way than those other cities. I shot on the other side of the river from Bourbon Street so that it would have an everyday feel to it.”

Exposing Blue Bayou’s Blood Memory

However, scattered throughout Blue Bayou‘s rawness are several visions that don’t quite gel with the rest of the film’s vibe. These flashbacks expose the protagonist’s hazy past, offering a tether to his childhood and the family that came before him. At first, these sequences appear jarring, but Chon delights in how these two aesthetics collide into each other.

“People complain that I’m tonally inconsistent,” says Chon, “and all this bullshit, but that’s just what I love. Sometimes, filmmaking gets like, ‘What’s the right way and what’s the wrong way?’ Fuck all of that. It’s art. And I love kitchen sink dramas; I love very visceral moments that are real. But then, I also love these moments of poetic lyricism, where we are in the subconscious. It’s exciting for me to watch those things come together, those two different forces to exist in one film. I really get amped up about that kind of stuff.”

These visions tap into the main character’s genetic source, an impossible memory that resides in his blood. It’s a concept Chon explored during acting classes and one that he eventually folded into his philosophy.

“Blood memory is your heritage,” says Chon. “It’s your culture, where you’re from. These things are undeniable. They run through your blood, and whether you’re conscious of it or not, they exist in you. Sometimes you deny it, but you’d probably be much more well-served to embrace it.”

Severed from his biological family, Chon’s character Antonio resists his blood memory. Doing so sparks guilt, tension, and torment. A chance encounter with a stranger, and his hellish ordeal with the judicial system, forces him to look inward in a way he’s never done before.

“With Antonio,” he continues, “when he meets Parker [Linh Dan Pham], he cannot deny that there’s some sort of calling or relation to himself with where he’s from. But because Antonio came to America as a child, when he was three, it’s as if it was a past life that he doesn’t remember. It’s almost like he was reincarnated. It’s a powerful thing that one cannot deny.”

All Movies Should Haunt Their Audience

Justin Chon wants Blue Bayou to live in your head the way it lived in his. He wants Antonio to remain un-dismissable. For a few hours in the dark, his pain should be your pain, and when the lights come up, you should take that pain with you.

“One of my goals with filmmaking,” says Chon, “is that when people walk out those double doors, out of the theater, and they go home, I want them to consider the characters one more time. I don’t want them to forget about them. I want them almost to be haunted by these characters.”

For Antoni0 to remain in your head long after the film ends, Chon must leave you with a thwack. Blue Bayou climaxes, and there are no easy answers to hang on, or futures to imagine. It’s the audience’s job to contemplate the rest, to finish the story, and if you want a bright ending, you got to make that happen in your voting booth.

“I want to bring empathy to my community,” he says. “And in order to do that, I need for you to consider these people. So, without giving away the ending, it’s what I do in this film. I want you not to be able to forget them so easily. Some people may like that, and some people may not.”

Such filmmaking requires participation. Your audience can’t kick back, relax, and receive. To make a film like Blue Bayou is an act of trust. And Justin Chon is confident that you will open up to it the way he did to A Perfect World, Moonlight, and so many others. Hearts and minds can change. They do so every day, in the dark, under the screen.

Blue Bayou is now playing in select theaters. 

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)