Up-and-coming Indonesian rapper James (Brian Imanuel) has taken a major professional leap signing with an international label. But just as the music execs are eager to take his music global, they demand he dilute his cultural identity to appeal to industry trends in the West. Yet “Jamojaya” –the new feature from director Justin Chon, premiering at Sundance — is only partially about James’ tug of war with the greedy forces impatient to exploit him. A familial fissure haunts him as well.
The rising star has chosen to part ways professionally with his father and now former manager Joyo (Yayu A.W. Unru), a decision the latter hasn’t taken well. Under pressure to record his album in Hawaii, James initially welcomes his dad’s presence during an unexpected visit. The more time they spent together, however, the more toxic their exchanges turn.
Chon tries to bridge the two thematic threads — the parent-child dysfunction and an artist’s struggle to remain authentic in a field that thrives on homogenization — and for a while, he succeeds at balancing the gravitas of both, until the pent-up sorrow and unaddressed trauma over the death of James’ brother takes hold of the drama in increasingly wounding fits.
The core of the film hinges on a legend that tells of a prince named Jamojaya who morphs into a banyan tree after being poisoned. His brother decides to willingly transform into a bird to reach the tallest branches of his sibling’s new form, but now the two don’t understand each other, and the bird can’t know for certain it’s on the right tree. That metaphor for miscommunication and dependency remains a recurrent motif throughout.
For Joyo, a humble man who named both of his sons after said prince, the need to watch closely over his boy stems from guilt expressed as a sense of duty. James’ new American manager doesn’t fight for the rapper’s interest as Joyo would, and while his English is limited, Unru’s devastating performance — one of intricate tonal shifts and pained gestures — illustrates what words can’t. Unru’s hard-to-ignore presence is engrossing throughout.
In an effort to ease his pain or to trick his mind into believing he is not unraveling, Joyo forces himself to laugh exaggeratedly every morning. This behavior will later carry further significance. Above all, Joyo overtly represents the loving but sometimes misguided ways of parents whose protectiveness can feel suffocating. His desire to be needed and to amend past mistakes serves the opposite effect and widens the distance between him and his son.
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Chon uses Joyo’s attempts to prove his usefulness to James, cleaning or taking on menial tasks for those in charge, to spell out how the white music producers and their staff observe the two Indonesian men with disdain. These villainous industry figures, including racist label owner Michael (Henry Ian Cusick, “Big Sky”) and a pompous music video director, come across as simplistic, uninteresting depictions of a rapacious business.
Opposite Unru’s turn, Imanuel (also a rapper in real life, known as Rich Brian) is tasked with a less showy, more contemplative, and eventually defensive, role. But while Chon directs his two lead actors into interesting ups-and-downs in their relationship as we witness it, it often feels like Joyo’s ordeal overpowers James’ search for autonomy. His artistic inspirations or what he wishes to communicate in his verses doesn’t make the cut. Instead, it’s in the quieter moments with dad, under a banyan tree, or via the melancholic, dual voice-over narration that we get some insight into his psychology.
With cinematographer Ante Cheng, in charge of lensing all of Chon’s feature projects to date, the director capitalizes on the paradisiacal locale without relying on postcard-friendly views but rather finding compelling elements that speak of a certain calmness amidst the interpersonal turmoil, like flowing curtains in the seaside wind.
Co-writing with Maegan Houang, Chon mostly steps away from the overwrought melodrama that at times sunk his previous effort, “Blue Bayou,” but some of his tendencies to throw too many things at the wall remain. For example, a couple of magical-realist sequences — which, like the ones in “Blue Bayou,” deal with death and water — provide visually striking images but tend to read as slightly out of place in a story already brimming with ideas.
Other scenes, like a strange visit to a strip club where father and son are peer-pressured into doing drugs, seem like they should have major repercussions in the plot or perhaps even bonding consequences, but instead they fizzle into the background. Near the end, a climatic screaming match reveals all the details previously unknown about their mutual loss and its aftermath; perhaps a subtler resolution could have preserved some of the solemn thoughtfulness that occasionally peeks through the less elegant passages.
As uneven as “Jamojaya” is, it still comes as a step in the right direction toward restraint in Chon’s prolific filmography of stories centered on individuals of Asian descent in circumstances that other-ize them. Although all of the titles in his résumé revolve around similar preoccupations of alienation and legacy, Chon finds new angles from which to explore them. The premise of this one, where a “tree” refuses to let his apples fall too far away from him, might be his most original yet.
“Jamojaya” makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.