Blue Bayou, Justin Chon’s third consecutive drama that seriously explores the Korean American experience, presented the filmmaker with his biggest challenge yet.
In the Focus Features release, the writer-director also stars in the central role of Antonio, Korean by birth but brought up in Louisiana by an abusive adoptive father and an adoptive mother who looked the other way. Despite the obstacles in his origin story and employment troubles because of his criminal record, Antonio builds himself a loving family with his pregnant wife (Alicia Vikander) and stepdaughter. But an unprovoked arrest by a bigoted cop leads to Antonio’s discovery that he is undocumented, and now he faces deportation from the only home he has ever known.
Because the film was shot on location in Louisiana and involved an Oscar-winning co-star (the Swedish Vikander, playing a native U.S. Southerner) and a major producing partner (Macro), the stakes were much higher than with Chon’s previous work, which includes the 2017 Sundance winner Gook and 2019’s Koreatown-set Ms. Purple. Blue Bayou languished so long in preproduction that Chon’s go-to director of photography, Ante Cheng, left to shoot another film, Death of Nintendo, while the funding was being arranged. In the meantime, Chon recruited another DP, Matthew Chuang; the two DPs ended up working alongside each other since Cheng’s other gig wrapped before Blue Bayou’s filming finally began.
Blue Bayou also involved other past Chon collaborators: composer Roger Suen, costume designer Eunice Jera Lee and editor Reynolds Barney, who have partnered with him dating back to Gook, and production designer Bo Koung Shin, who first worked with the director on Ms. Purple. In a largely homogenous industry in which artisans of Asian descent are often few and far between, Chon’s crew has made for a tight-knit creative family.
“With the current movement and talks about diversity and being inclusive,” notes Cheng, “we’re just trying to do our part, one project at a time.”
THR’s Raising Our Voices recognizes the cast and crew of Blue Bayou for their commitment to authentic and diverse staffing and for illuminating the humanity behind the real-world debates over immigration and American identity.
The Hollywood Reporter’s Raising Our Voices series, presented by Walmart, focuses on emerging artisans from backgrounds that have been historically underrepresented in Hollywood. The featured craftspeople have been selected by THR editors from 2021’s most critically acclaimed films.
ANTE CHENG & MATTHEW CHUANG
“It’s very grounded in reality,” says Chuang, who served as co-DP on the film with Chon’s usual cinematographer, Cheng, who adds: “We were working with a lot of first-time actors and used a lot of close-ups, and also trying to bring an authentic vibe to New Orleans and the characters.”
Inspired by the films of John Cassavetes and his visceral, vérité approach to drama, the director and his DPs chose to shoot on Super 16 with a 1.66 aspect ratio, which lends itself equally to tight close-ups and wide landscapes, such as the marsh in the bayou where Antonio often retreats and gets lost in memories of his birth mother in Korea. The cinematographers shot Antonio’s flashbacks in the bayou to be “a little more abstract and surreal and fragmented … because of the trauma that he continues to go through,” explains Chuang. “We wanted to capture that in a way that was visually expressive.”
Cheng and Chuang were both born in Taiwan but took different paths to shooting features. Cheng and his family divided their time between Taipei and Toronto, where he and his best friend would make stop-motion films using Legos during long Canadian winters. He attended National Taiwan University, where he studied economics. “I was pretty bored with my major in my first semester,” recalls Cheng, 31. But he nevertheless finished his degree, mainly because he needed one to qualify for USC’s film school, where he earned his MFA and met Chon while filming a short.
“He liked the style [in which] I was operating the camera,” recalls Cheng, “and a few weeks later said he had a passion project, and [asked] if I wanted to work with him. That was Gook, which we filmed with a lot of friends. And out of nowhere, we got into Sundance.” The film — about two Korean American brothers trying to defend their shoe store during the 1992 L.A. riots — would win an Audience Award at Sundance and a Spirit Award for Chon. It would also solidify the partnership between DP and director that has lasted to this day.
For his part, Chuang, 38, who has lived in L.A. for the past five years, came to the biz by way of Australia, where he attended the Academy of Photogenic Arts in Sydney. Although Chuang found fairly steady work on shorts and music videos, he views L.A. as a much more receptive market for his skills. “There’s a lot more people willing to take a chance on newer voices and more opportunity for people to give you a chance,” he says. He met director Chon through Blue Bayou’s costume designer, Eunice Jera Lee.
“Australia at the time was not making any Asian stories,” Chuang says. “I’d never been a part of anything that had anything to do with what I looked like. The first project I ever worked on where I had to look within myself and who I was and the experiences that I’ve been through, was with Justin, on Blue Bayou.”
OTHER CREDITS Paul Feig-produced web series East of La Brea (Cheng), Ciara’s “Greatest Love” music video (Chuang)
NEXT UP Apple TV’s Pachinko and 20th Century Studios’ Darby Harper Wants You to Know, starring Storm Reid (Cheng), Focus Features’ horror You Won’t Be Alone and Assassin Club starring Henry Golding, Noomi Rapace and Sam Neill (Chuang)
EUNICE JERA LEE
For Blue Bayou’s Antonio, appearances are deceiving. The stained white tank tops he wears at home might declare “tough guy,” but he’s as gentle as a lamb. As a tattoo artist, he struggles to land extra work not only because of his record for theft, but also because his full-neck tat, with wings framing his face, lends him an air of menace, despite his attempts to stay on the straight and narrow.
“The tattoos actually made my job a lot easier,” says costume designer Lee, “because no matter how you dress, to put tattoos in such pronounced places, you are really telling a story about yourself and the decisions you make.”
Lee, 34, was born in Anaheim, California, to Korean immigrant parents. She refers to her father, who headed his own engineering business, as a feminist: “He made my sister and myself believe we can do anything we wanted.”
For Lee, that meant studying design and management at New York’s famed Parsons School of Design, working as a stylist for such publications as Vogue, W and Women’s Wear Daily and earning her master’s in fashion journalism at Central Saint Martins in London, where she lived and worked for five years until the desire to discover her roots led her to Seoul.
Amid commercial work for clients like Samsung, Lee also ended up working on her first feature film set, as key costumer for the 2015 coming-of-age indie Seoul Searching. She struck up a friendship with the movie’s lead — Justin Chon — and soon found herself in L.A. working with the multihyphenate on Gook.
As a costume designer, Lee finds inspiration in “the realism of Thelma & Louise” and “the fantastical aspect of Death Becomes Her” as well as the resourcefulness of Larry Clark’s 1995 cult classic Kids, for which designer Kim Druce-Sava, operating on a micro-budget, thrifted a lot of the clothes.
In a way, Lee takes all three approaches—realism, fantasy, practicality — in Blue Bayou. The characters in the movie, which largely takes place just outside New Orleans, live life on the margins, and Lee’s approach to the clothes is thoroughly unromanticized. And although Antonio was born in South Korea, his identity is completely tied to his upbringing near Baton Rouge. “We needed him to feel very American,” says Lee.
To authentically capture the look for Antonio’s wife, Kathy, who works as a nurse, Lee dressed down Oscar winner Vikander in “scrubs with Danskos or worn-in Tevas in her everyday wardrobe that people in the area would wear.”
Designing costumes for productions like Blue Bayou is a far cry from the high fashion in Lee’s continuing editorial work as a stylist, but she sees herself “having to choose a path very soon, and I think that path’s been a little more obvious these days. I just love working in film and television.”
And while “there’s a new generation of costume designers that’s more diverse,” says Lee, “there’s a massive lack of diversity in Hollywood crews. I do see it changing, but if we’re doing the numbers game, then it needs a lot of work there.”
OTHER CREDITS Assistant costume designer for Netflix’s Kevin Hart crime drama True Story
NEXT UP Chon’s Jamojaya, Netflix K-drama Carter (U.S. unit costume designer)
Suen’s score for Blue Bayou is hauntingly plaintive and atmospheric, at times employing stringed instruments like the violin, viola and cello — both bowed and plucked. But the cello sounds more like an erhu, a traditional two-stringed Chinese instrument, while the pizzicato style of plucking the violin makes it sound more like a charango, a small Andean instrument in the lute family.
This stylistic approach is meant to underscore the duality experienced by Antonio (played by Chon), a Korean raised by Americans in Louisiana. “We wanted instruments not to sound like one or the other,” explains Suen, 38. “The whole idea behind that was Antonio is not one or the other.”
Like Antonio in the movie, Suen has experienced his own sense of alienation. His parents moved to the U.S. in the 1970s, having fled Taiwan and its then-militant regime. They ended up in Ventura, California, where Suen, a first-generation Asian American, found himself in the extreme minority.
“It was largely white and Hispanic, pretty much working-class,” he recalls of his neighborhood. “There was a lot of racism that I dealt with — a lot of bullying, a lot of name-calling. Kids can be pretty nasty. Masculinity is just not a thing American culture recognizes in Asian men. That was something you feel has always been questioned.”
Initially, his parents did what they could to make ends meet, with his dad eventually earning an engineering degree and his mother starting her own day care business. Suen, the youngest of three siblings, found safe harbor in music. As a trombonist and pianist, he spared no opportunity to hone his budding skills in Ventura High’s music program.
“I played in the marching band, a normal orchestra and a wind orchestra,” he says. “There’s this thing called All State Honor Band that I did every year. I was in a ska band as a trombone player. I was also in a brief Guns N’ Roses cover band in high school. I actually sang, believe it or not.”
He was accepted to UCLA as a music major but hedged his bets by also following in his father’s footsteps. “I ended up graduating with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering,” he says, noting that he’d completed only half of his music courses. After a brief, unfulfilling stint as an engineer, he went back to school at Cal State Northridge to finish his bachelor’s in music composition.
Beginning in 2010, he toiled for years in TV and documentaries, until creating additional music for composer John Ottman on X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) opened up new vistas. “That really allowed me to get the experience and the chops to play with the big boys,” he says. Also formative was his work with composer John Paesano on Netflix’s Daredevil series.
Although Suen scored Chon’s previous two features, he considers Blue Bayou his biggest breakthrough to date. His dream project would allow him to scale up.
“Aside from dramas like Blue Bayou with strong social agendas,” he says, “I would love to do a big action-adventure film, whether it’s a Marvel thing like Shang-Chi or something similar. I love action films with a big orchestral palette.”
While his accomplishments are considerable and his future assured, the adversity Suen faced growing up affects him to this day, even if the slights take a more subtle, even subliminal, form. “I have a constant self-doubt,” he admits. “I always feel I have to prove myself, even in the music I write. And it’s something I feel constantly.”
OTHER CREDITS ESPN’s Stephon Marbury documentary A Kid From Coney Island, additional music for The Shape of Water and Netflix’s Red Notice
NEXT UP Chon’s next feature, Jamojaya, and PBS doc Battle for the Schools
This story first appeared in the Dec. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.