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Director Justin Chon on how he tried to capture an authentic adoptee experience

Chon's coming film, "Blue Bayou," follows a Korean American adoptee in Louisiana who grapples with questions about family, belonging and who's considered American.
Alicia Vikander, Sydney Kowalske and Justin Chon on the set of "Blue Bayou."
Alicia Vikander, Sydney Kowalske and Justin Chon on the set of "Blue Bayou."Focus Fetaures

At the Cannes Film Festival in July, where he was promoting his coming film, “Blue Bayou,” director and star Justin Chon said he had had a particularly emotional response to an Asian interviewer from the Netherlands. The journalist, who was adopted, thanked him for his movie, which centers on a Korean American adoptee. And soon he found himself unable to control his response. For a while, Chon “couldn’t stop crying,” he said. 

Chon, a veteran filmmaker who is Korean American, said he has felt intimately tied to the subject matter. However, Chon isn’t adopted like his subject, Louisiana bayou-bred Anthony LeBlanc, whom he plays in the movie. 

“My purpose as an Asian American filmmaker is first and foremost to bring empathy to our entire community,” he said. “And one of the things that’s important is not to only represent my own experience or my own culture. It’s to represent all of us.” 

The film, which premieres Sept. 17, follows LeBlanc, a tattoo artist with a criminal record, whose world is shattered after an altercation in a grocery store. With a child on the way and trying to make ends meet for his blended family, he struggles to keep his family together as he confronts the possibility of deportation. Like many adoptees in the real world, LeBlanc was never naturalized and risks being sent to a country he barely knows, prompting questions around citizenship, belonging, family — and who gets to be considered American. 

The storyline, an experience of immigration that is rarely covered in the mainstream media, was inspired by the lives of many adoptees. Tackling the subject matter requires a deep grasp of the policies and identity issues, so as Asian Americans push for more authentic stories about the community, Chon understands concerns that many have had about outsiders’ telling the stories of others, he said.

To do so respectfully, he said, starts with intent. 

“You can’t make laws about this, because it’s art, and art is subjective,” Chon said. “Is the intention of telling a story financial or to take advantage or exploit a particular ethnicity or topic or issue? Or is the intention to actually represent these people or to rectify a situation or to create honest conversation?”

Chon said his Korean heritage and the experiences of friends in his immediate community in part compelled him to examine the issues surrounding international adoption. 

The practice began during wartime “babylifts” after World War II and subsequent conflicts when the U.S. asserted its power in part by “rescuing” orphans from communism to demonstrate its goodwill. In 1955, the practice was further formalized when an evangelical couple, Henry and Bertha Holt, successfully advocated for the right to adopt Korean “war orphans” through an act of Congress. The couple later launched Holt International Children’s Services, the first large-scale international adoption organization. 

Critics have stressed that conversations about adoption often suffer from little analysis of race and power and that they ignore the legal battles many adoptees face, because those adopted by U.S. parents before 2000 weren’t automatically granted citizenship. 

Because he understood the weight of the subject, Chon said, his process was slower than it was on his other films, which include “Ms. Purple,” about a complicated relationship that unfolds as Korean American siblings care for their terminally ill father, and “Gook,” which dealt with the 1992 Los Angeles riots. 

“This took four or five years. It wasn’t like an overnight thing I decided to just do, and I didn’t take it lightly, either,” Chon said. 

Chon said that to bring the sort of tenderness and care the subject deserved, he first pored over research and news articles about similar cases. One of the most publicized was the deportation of Adam Crapser, who was adopted from South Korea and endured abuse and later abandonment by two sets of adoptive parents, none of whom filed for his citizenship. Crapser, who had several arrests on his record, was deported in 2016. 

Chon said he also talked to an immigration lawyer to help craft the film. And while he “can never possibly know what it feels like” to be adopted, he said, he tried to illustrate the truth of the experience by consulting adoptees throughout the writing process and spending hundreds of hours on the phone with them.  

“Once I had an edit, I screened it for some adoptees and then got notes from them and changed the edit through the post-production of the film, as well, to try to make sure that they felt comfortable,” he said. “I couldn’t consult with the entire community, but with the people who I was consulting, I was making sure that they felt that it was authentic to them.”

Chon said the commitment to respectful art should be expected across the board, even within the communities themselves. In the past few years, he said, he has witnessed projects from Asian Americans in which he has questioned whether the work was born from opportunity.

“I look at their track record and I go: ‘OK, well, they weren’t doing this before, and now they are. Was this always part of them, or is it a moment?’” Chon said. “I don’t ethically know what’s right and wrong, but I just raised questions.” 

That doesn’t mean communities should police creativity. But Chon said Asian America’s true power is to lift up those who are committed to a genuine representation. 

“We shouldn’t close the door and restrict the amount of stories that are being told,” he said. “We should just welcome all of it and then we decide which ones are valid and deserve our attention.”

Chon stressed that, regardless of his initial proximity to the subject matter, he needs to have a deeply meaningful connection to the art he makes. And that is nonnegotiable. 

“It is emotional. Otherwise, why do it — why make the film if it’s not going to matter that much to me and to us? So I am 100 percent invested,” he said.