Why Do People Keep Finding Their Lives Onscreen Without Their Consent?

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Why Do People Keep Finding Their Lives Onscreen Without Their Consent?

Premiered in this year’s Cannes Un Certain Regard program, Justin Chon’s Blue Bayou follows a Korean American adoptee raised in New Orleans who faces deportation due to his criminal record. The film brings to light the challenges international adoptees face in general, as well as the little-known legal loophole through which tens of thousands who arrived in the US before 1983 are officially undocumented. The film marks a breakthrough in representation, both as a project by an Asian American filmmaker making it into Cannes and for presenting a minority-within-a-minority experience. Chon not only wrote and directed, but also plays the lead, Antonio LeBlanc. And though his cajun strains credulity, he gives one of the most dynamic and comprehensive recent performances we’ve seen from any Asian American actor. That aside, there is much to criticize, such as the script’s reliance on cliché sentimentality and its fixation on giving redemption arcs to a police officer and an ICE agent. But significant ethical issues regarding the movie’s production have surfaced since its theatrical release in September, putting any consideration of its formal problems in the backseat.

Many of the plot’s details appear to have been lifted without consent from the life of Adam Crapser, a Korean American adoptee who was deported by ICE for a misdemeanor in 2016. Crapser released a statement objecting both to this and to the general lack of input from the deported adoptee community on the film. “I am a real person. I am not a Hollywood character made for profit, award-seeking, or tear-jerking movies,” he wrote. “When personal traumas are forcefully misappropriated for other people’s purposes — it is hurtful.” There’s also been criticism of the lack of a “call to action.” There’s no reference in either the film or its publicity materials to the Adoptee Citizenship Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation under consideration that would grant citizenship to all current undocumented adoptees. On the basis of these issues, Adoptees for Justice (A4J) has called for a boycott of Blue Bayou.

Shortly after Crapser’s statement, Chon responded in an Instagram post denying his claim, stating that Blue Bayou reflects a composite of the lives of many real people, and that the script received input from adoptees from its inception. But this assertion is compromised in several ways. Chon contacted Crapser on Facebook in 2017, and the message makes it clear that Crapser’s story was his entry point to the subject of adoptee deportation. As Becky Belcore — a Korean American adoptee, executive director of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium (NAKASEC), and an advisory board member of A4J — put simply when speaking to Hyperallergic, the Adoptee Citizenship Act owes its momentum and support largely to the publicity around Crapser’s case. Chon does not deny that this interaction took place, but claimed in a video panel that he was subsequently locked out of his Facebook account for four years. The overlaps between Antonio and Crapser’s stories seem more than coincidental. Like Crapser, Antonio is adopted at age three, abused by his foster parents, has a pregnant wife, is a stepfather to her children, is slated to be deported for theft (of a Bible and rubber shoes from the foster parents in real life, of a motorcycle in the movie), and is 40 at the time of his first deportation hearing. Additionally, Antonio strikes a close friendship with a Vietnamese woman, while Crapser’s ex-wife is Vietnamese.

Chon is effectively in a bind, because including a call to action to the Adoptee Citizenship Act would draw attention to its direct ties to Crapser, whose story he denies lifting. Prior to his response to Crapser in late September, he would plead ignorance as to why Blue Bayou makes no mention of the legislation. He has said at various times that he is not a political person, that he was unaware of the situation around the bill (“I don’t know a lot about politics. I’m a dummy.”), or that bringing up the legislation would have made the film a “propaganda piece.” Belcore, consulted by Focus Features before the general release, told Hyperallergic that the distributor said they’d conducted market research about whether to include information on the bill at the film’s end, and found that doing so hadn’t tested well. “They kind of missed the point,” she said. “Our main point is: It’s not ok to take someone’s personal story for professional gain. We should all be focused together, Chon and Focus Features, to do good for [the adoptee] community. Instead they’re dividing our community.” As of this writing, Focus has yet to respond to Belcore. They also declined to comment for this piece.

Justin Chon behind the scenes of Blue Bayou

Focus did put out a press release featuring a statement from Adoptee Advocacy in support of Blue Bayou and critical of A4J’s boycott, which they say will blunt the film’s reach. Kristopher Larsen, a co-organizer of Adoptee Advocacy, was one of those consulted on the film. He disclosed to Hyperallergic that his own future is tied to the Adoptee Citizenship Act’s success or failure, and restated his support for Chon. Stephanie Drenka, an adoptee and editor of VISIBLE Magazine, said to Hyperallergic that while she supports the call for a boycott, she also understands Adoptee Advocacy’s statement. She observed that members of the adoptee community are often pitted against one another — like how those with positive fostering experiences are used to shut down those with negative ones. She affirmed that this case should not repeat that pattern. “Family separation is traumatic, adoption agencies are traumatic, anytime I see adoptees being pitted against each other, it’s problematic for me,” she said. “I support all of the adoptees that released [Adoptee Advocacy’s] statement. I’m so happy that they feel their stories were handled with care and respect … My only question is, why wasn’t that care given to Adam’s story?”

The one unanimous sentiment seems to be that this controversy has marred a meaningful opportunity for raising awareness and activism. However, the film’s political messaging is so clumsy that an accurate understanding of the topics at hand is hardly visible. Reminiscent of Crash (2004), it begins by characterizing white police officer Ace (Mark O’Brien), the ex-husband of Antonio’s wife Kathy (Alicia Vikander), as a racist villain. He’s the one who lands Antonio in trouble with DHS, but then the rest of the film then tries to redeem him. Similarly, it devotes significant time, for no purpose relevant to the plot, to humanizing an ICE agent who’s a friend of Antonio.

More egregiously, film has zero historical context for its subject. No allusion is made as to why so many white US families adopted Korean children in the ’80s. This was the same period in which there was a major uptick in immigration from South Korea to the US period (as dramatized in Minari). The reason for both phenomena is unequivocally the post-1945 history of US neocolonialism and support of dictatorships in South Korea. These governments inflicted political repression and immiseration, allowing adoption agencies like Holt International to profit from the resulting social fractures. Much of Bong Joon-ho’s filmography, from Memories of Murder to Parasite, makes reference to America’s enduring destructive presence on the Korean peninsula. Additionally, in recent years, scholarship has explored its social and psychological aftermath. Notable examples include David L. Eng and Shinhee Han’s Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation, Monica Kim’s The Interrogation Rooms of the Korean War, and Su-kyoung Hwang’s Korea’s Grievous War.

Certainly, it is Chon’s creative prerogative to bracket out the broader history of US/Korean adoption and narrow Blue Bayou’s scope to the dramatic story of one individual. Yet given the grave and tragic irony of this history, what political end does this serve? The film seems seduced by its own sentimentalized storytelling, full of shallow focus, slow pans, a plaintive score — what Justin Chang calls “sledgehammer tactics.” As Antonio is victimized by circumstance over and over, the melodramatic style verges on emotional manipulation, betraying anxiety over whether enough is being done for a hypothetical white viewer to empathize. This is presumably what Chon means when he describes art as “an empathy machine” (a paraphrase of Roger Ebert). But this is an impoverished notion of art’s potential to meet the complexity of a political moment. That Chon has repeatedly said he’s not “a political person,” that he wanted the film’s ending to satisfy “both sides” of the political spectrum, raises the question of whether he was up to the task of tackling such topics. There doesn’t exist a nonpolitical space from which to speak truthfully on adoption, immigration, and deportation. Given the complexity and urgency international adoptees feel regarding Blue Bayou’s subject matter, what the film has to offer is thin.

These formal flaws are not unique to this film, but speak to a trend across Chon’s work, such as Gook (2017) and Ms. Purple (2019). All these titles share a melodramatic focus on one or two individuals of disadvantaged identities (a Black girl in South Central LA in Gook, a Korean American sex worker in LA’s Koreatown in Ms. Purple) who are perpetually victimized, all presented with an inadequate social-historical context. These issues also go beyond Chon, and strike at what Blair McClendon describes as the recent influx of money and prestige into documentary, and how it has reshaped filmmaking. Blue Bayou is symptomatic of a larger structural trend eroding the line between fiction and nonfiction. This past summer, a podcast dramatizing the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin was pulled from distribution when it was revealed that Helen Zia (a journalist closely connected to the Chin case) had not consented to the use of her likeness, and that the Chin family had never been contacted about the project. The recent acclaimed documentary Sabaya, which portrays the rescue of Yazidi women enslaved by ISIS, has faced similar criticism. Four of the Yazidi subjects did not consent to be filmed, on account of the danger it posed to them.

The common thread here is the way a film’s intended mission can be ethically undermined by by the conditions of its production. Who gets to speak for whom, and for whose story? Set Hernandez Rongkilyo and Jo Saen Ronquillo, members of the Undocumented Filmmakers Collective, told Hyperallergic that it’s important to be wary of “extractive storytelling” at a time when the business of putting minoritized identities onscreen is booming. Ronquillo questioned why Blue Bayou did not have an impact producer, a social media campaign around the Adoptee Citizenship Act, or some kind of mutual aid fund. “The ultimate percentage of the film being helpful without these is slim to none,” Ronquillo said. What Focus Features did offer was a Blue Bayou “Ultimate New Orleans Weekend Sweepstakes,” whereby one could win a trip featuring an airboat swamp tour and a “Haunted Ghost Tour” of the French Quarter. The contest was taken down after backlash, though the link to its web page is not dead as of the time of writing.

Ronquillo is hopeful that institutions like the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Festival, which has a strong record of supporting the undocumented filmmaking community, will lead renewed discussions around power and consent in film production. David Wilson, former interim artistic director of the True/False Festival, echoed this sentiment. In response to the controversy surrounding Sabaya (which received the festival’s True Life Fund), he told Hyperallergic, “there is an urgent need for additional training and discussions among programmers and fest directors about how we think about the power dynamics between filmmaker and subject, and consent, and each film is going to have its own unique relationship to its people.”

Rongkilyo noted that being a minority filmmaker does not have to mean casting people in tragic and perpetually victimized roles. Nor should a filmmaker only be permitted to work within their particular “identity.” Rather, there should be a commitment to openness and inclusion — not only with a community depicted in a film, but also in a film’s vision. “Filmmakers of color don’t just have to tell stories from disadvantaged perspectives. There’s also a liberty to experiment that’s important, whether the film is critically acclaimed or not. When we’re not coming from a place of scarcity, economically and emotionally, then you can have nuance in how you explore problems.”

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