How Justin Chon’s movie Blue Bayou created harm rather than help for Korean adoptees
If you’re anything like me, you might walk into a movie without doing any initial research on the topic.
When I saw the trailer for Justin Chon’s Blue Bayou, I was fired up and ready to stand as an ally with the Korean adoptee community. The trailer promised an emotional roller coaster, touching on timely issues with the justice system, immigration and deportation, and who gets to decide who is American.
The movie follows Antonio LeBlanc, a Louisiana raised Korean adoptee who learns that he may be deported from America and forced to return to South Korea, a country he’s never known.
After watching the film, besides the tears in my eyes and the empty feeling in my stomach, I left with more questions than answers. And I was curious about the reaction and discussions around the film, especially from the Korean adoptee community. Was the community that the film was about supportive of it?
Calling authenticity into question
Blue Bayou quickly met controversy and negative feedback on their representation of the experiences and people depicted in the film.
“As an adoptee I have to tell you it falls very, very short in terms of representation,” said Korean Australian writer, actor, and director Lee Shorten. “I did not feel it was a genuine and sincere attempt to tell an adoptee story.”
Shorten pointed out a few instances in the story that didn’t lend themselves to the authenticity of the adoptee experience.
WARNING: MOVIE SPOILERS
With the storyline of the protagonist’s mother trying to drown him in the lake as a six month old baby, it’s questionable whether a child that young would have that memory. The song that the mother and subsequently Antonio’s character hums is also improbable. “Do you remember what happened when you were six months old? This is not a genuine thing,” challenges Shorten.
“The problem [with this subplot] is that it] perpetuates a harmful stereotype about biological mothers: that they’re these horrible unfit people, and that the adoptees are way better off with their adoptive families. It feeds into white saviour-ish kind of stuff,” said Shorten.
“If he [Justin Chon] did his research, he would know that over 90% of Korean mothers were coerced to give up their children and it wasn’t a choice; they were pressured by the state,” he continued. “Children were forcibly stolen from [their] mothers. He would know that many adoption agencies employed people to force mothers to give up their children. If he was committed to telling an authentic and genuine adoptee story, why go down this path?”
Choosing allyship over alienation in filmmaking
“Representation and empowerment are not the same thing… If you’re going to tell stories of our impacted community members, use your power and privilege to actually help them,” urges Adoptees for Justice, a non-profit organization focused on educating and empowering transracial and transnational adoptees.
Although the filmmaker worked with POC consultants for their feedback on the film, that’s not enough. Justin Chon as writer, director, producer, and main actor had a lot of power and influence throughout the filmmaking process. Being a recognized and award-winning filmmaker, Chon had the caché and the cash to pour in the appropriate resources into telling a Korean adoptee story.
A more effective and genuine approach would have been to decenter himself and approach filmmaking with the intention of true allyship. Allyship is “a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals or groups of people,” as defined by PeerNet BC.
“It is not self-defined; work and efforts must be recognized by those you are seeking to ally with.” Allyship is not about getting sign-off after a project is done. It’s about engaging those directly impacted by your work throughout the process.
In response to the pressure from the Korean adoptee community and Adoptees for Justice, Chon issued a statement that mentions 13 adoptees that were consulted in the making of the film, but only mentions one Korean adoptee. Newly formed organization Adoptee Advocacy also issued a formal statement signed by some of the adoptee consultants on the film, only one of which is Korean.
“Now we are being abandoned by people we thought were our brothers and sisters … we feel like we are being treated as the enemy,” the statement reads.
While the adoptee experience is vast and diverse, this statement gaslights Korean adoptees, who rightly had the expectation of being authentically represented in the film. How is this representation and allyship?
Exploiting a Korean adoptee’s experience
Justin Chon’s Blue Bayou has also met controversy in its similarities to the real life of deported Korean American adoptee Adam Crasper.
Crasper was deported from the United States in 2016 and is currently serving a ten year ban from entering the U.S. Upon the film’s release, Crasper shared how the Focus Features team reached out to him for use of a family photo for the film’s marketing. He also shared screenshots of Chon messaging him on Facebook about his story.
Since then, a petition has been started to boycott the film that recognizes the likeness of Adam Crasper’s real life experience in the film, along with a call to the distribution company to put a stop to the film’s distribution.
Adoptees for Justice also demands that the film advocate for the community it exploited. It demanded that Blue Bayou situate itself in the current political situation of adoptees by putting a slide at the end of the film urging audiences to contact Congress about the Adoptee Citizenship Act. And it demanded that the film donate its profits towards the community that was impacted, namely adoptees without citizenship.
It took more than two weeks for Justin Chon and Focus Features to respond to this feedback. When they did, advocacy groups and individuals alike were not satisfied. Over a month after the film’s initial release, Chon shared a website with a podcast highlighting deported adoptee experiences on his personal Instagram. While this is a good gesture, it separated the film from the controversy. It would have been better if the link was shared on the official Blue Bayou film account to own up to the criticisms and acknowledge them.
At the end of the day, the demands are still not being met and Blue Bayou further distances itself from the real life consequences of the community it centers on.
Pairing awareness with action
The film has been out since early September and it’s taken me about two months to write this piece. As I read more about the Korean adoptee community’s response to this film, I found myself at a crossroads. If I published this piece, would it preclude me from future opportunities to interview Asian American filmmakers? It’s really scary standing up for yourself or for others, especially when you aren’t sure what the fall out will be.
But if I’ve learned anything in the last year, it’s that it is critical to do work that is not only working for representation, but also for justice, accountability, and systemic change.
At the end of the day, many of us are trying to not have to justify our existence. And that’s why this movie could’ve been so much more. Sure, we got our Asian American lead, but the lack of specificity in this lived experience erased what makes the adoptee experience so unique and different from the first or second-gen Asian American story.
That’s why it was especially heartbreaking to hear about the harm Blue Bayou caused to the Korean adoptee community. It would have been easy to simply add a call to action about helping adoptees facing deportation, and yet it wasn’t done. With the visibility and attention about the movie, it was a missed opportunity to get more people aware about the Adoptee Citizenship Act and move the needle on legislation.
Justin Chon’s movie Blue Bayou could have been a uniquely Korean American adoptee story but instead, was taken out of real world context and without permission. With more films in the works with Asian leads and stories, my hope is that more people will feel that their existence and experiences are being validated and reflected in honest, respectful ways.
We’re currently at a place where each film featuring an Asian character can mean everything to someone. The work we do in and for our communities can and should do more than bring awareness to issues; we can cause change and should aim for it.
For more information on how you can learn more and help adoptees facing deportation, see the following links:
Featured image from Focus Features
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