Each year, the Film Independent Spirit Awards give the Someone to Watch Award to an emerging filmmaker of singular vision. In this column, film critic David Bax revisits some of the grant’s recipients to see how their work and careers have continued to develop.
It’s kind of surprising to look up Justin Chon on IMDb and be reminded that he does not have a background in directing music videos. Filmmakers who follow that path to features usually emerge with a handy set of skills. Music videos, with their brevity and reduced reliance on story structure, allow essentially cinematic habits and instincts to emerge. But Chon is actually an actor-turned-director, an avenue with a much spottier track record.
His 2017 film Gook, which won Chon the Someone to Watch Award at the 33rd Film Independent Spirit Awards, does have a story but is chiefly a film of sublime images that are as much a part of the mosaic as they are ends unto themselves. Like when a girl dances with abandon—once in front of a burning building, another time while a car with the film’s title spray painted onto its hood does doughnuts around her in the parking lot—or when Chon, who also plays the film’s lead, flings a bottle through a store window, limber body pivoting in slow motion as his long hair whips around his head.
These shots stand on their own as credits to the potential for beauty in moving images and their ability to stir in us nostalgia, longing, passion and any other feeling a skilled enough film artist wants to share.
Gook is clearly rooted in Chon’s own background. The director’s father really did own a shoe store in Paramount, California (just east of Compton) like the one where his character, Eli, works. The film’s one-long-day structure—which happens to take place on April 29, 1992, the day a jury acquitted police officers who had been filmed viciously beating Rodney King—steeps us in the ongoing tension (as well as the friendships) between Korean, Black and Latino residents of this low-income community.
Chon’s empathy runs deep, allowing nearly every character who is antagonistic to Eli some sort of shading of nobility, hurt or complexity. It’s an atypical day in all these people’s lives for multiple reasons but Chon never loses focus on everyone’s innate humanity and the fact that every single person on screen is trying to live a life.
After winning the Someone to Watch Award, Chon continued his every-other-year schedule as a director, Gook being his second feature, after 2015’s Man Up. 2019 saw the release of Ms. Purple, the only film he’s made in which he does not appear as an actor; he did, however, star that same year in Wayne Wang’s lovely, mournful Coming Home Again. And now, in 2021, we have Blue Bayou.
Maybe the first thing you realize when you look up Blue Bayou (we all spend a lot of time on IMDb, right?) is the presence of more established actors. Alicia Vikander, an Oscar winner, is the biggest name but most any audience will recognize Vondie Curtis-Hall and attentive film and television watchers will be aware of Emory Cohen (Brooklyn, The Place Beyond the Pines) and Mark O’Brien (Hannibal, Halt and Catch Fire). Maybe this is where Chon’s background as an actor does help, though, because the addition of more seasoned talent does not dissuade him from his goals. He’s once again in complete control.
If casting is the biggest behind-the-scenes difference between Blue Bayou and Gook, the starkest onscreen change is that, where the 2017 film was in raw black and white, the new one is dripping with color. That’s at least partially a result of Chon’s deeply realized sense of place. Gook potently translated the flat, hot, concrete sprawl of the Southland, particularly the parts often lost in the shadow of more-photographed locales like Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Venice.
In the same way, Blue Bayou takes on the characteristics of the greater New Orleans area in which it is set, a place where the colorful beads depending year-round from branches and power lines mimic the downward rolling drops of forehead sweat and beer bottle condensation produced by the humidity. The movie is somehow bright and warm while simultaneously shopworn and weather-beaten. Chon’s Antonio LeBlanc may live in a rundown house but it’s a house where the walls are painted purple.
LeBlanc lives with his girlfriend Kathy (Vikander) and is a father figure to Kathy’s daughter. This family unit is threatened, though, when ICE initiates procedures to deport Antonio, who was adopted from South Korea as a young boy by an agency that failed to follow proper procedures. This is a disturbingly common problem, a fact learned from the call to action that appears onscreen at the end of the movie. Gook is interested in exploring ongoing social difficulties but Blue Bayou’s anger at our country’s immigration laws is more specifically topical.
Between the lush palette and the issues-based plot, Blue Bayou belongs to a long cinematic tradition of melodrama, the kind we associate with Douglas Sirk. Chon excels at realizing the potential of the genre. The film repeatedly balloons with hope and then yanks it away suddenly, in ways staged and shot for maximum devastation. Chon did this in Gook, too, but Blue Bayou’s aesthetics make it more noticeable.
Melodrama sometimes gets a bad rap, mostly from those too self-conscious and insecure to handle earnestness unadorned with irony. But Chon recognizes that grand gestures, crushing defeats and on-the-nose dialogue aren’t detriments to a good film. They are, in fact, the stuff that cinema is made of. For all the outsized importance the industry and the medium’s fans seem to place on screenwriting and three-act plot mechanics, what we remember about movies are the transcendent moments produced by shadow and light, faces and bodies captured by a camera’s lens. From the opening, out of context close-up of billowing flames in Gook, Chon suggested that he understood that as well as anyone working today. With Blue Bayou, he’s proved it.
Other nominees: Look, this was only four years ago and not everyone churns out films as regularly as Chon does. But Amman Abbasi, who was nominated for Dayveon, directed a short film about a Pakistani immigrant to America as well as producing 2020’s Kate Lyn Sheil and Lindsay Burdge-starring Materna and earning a credit as a music consultant on David Gordon Green’s Halloween. Super Dark Times director Kevin Phillips directed a visual album for The Lumineers and an episode of Hulu’s horror anthology Monsterland as well as serving as cinematographer on a documentary about folk musician Karen Dalton.
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(Header: Blue Bayou)