‘Jamojaya’ Review: Justin Chon drops Rich Brian in a thin music drama
Sundance: Chon’s latest film offers moments of beauty and innovation, but they’re mired in the filmmaker’s most hackneyed feature yet.
As a director, Justin Chon has long been on the lookout for stories about high-profile, torn families. “Gook” was about a pair of brothers running their father’s shoe store after his father’s death and in the shadow of the Los Angeles riots. “Miss. Purple” followed estranged siblings trying to make amends with their father before his death. “Blue Bayou” cast Chon himself as an immigrant father trying to stay in the United States while the government tries to throw him out.
Fathers, children and monstrous outside forces also play a part in his fifth feature, “Jamojaya,” which continues Chon’s traditional obsessions but wraps them in a shallow story filled with predictable problems, obvious malice and hackneyed lessons. In expanding his point of view beyond his typically smaller-scale stories—both in terms of the film’s overall plot, which follows an up-and-coming young rapper who learnsgasp), that the music industry is bad, and when trying to develop new filmmaking techniques like a new kind of hand-held camerawork—Chon is unfortunately still showing his thinnest emotional and narrative features to this day.
It starts off pretty strong: up-and-coming young rapper James (played by up-and-coming young rapper viral star Brian “Rich Brian” Imanuel) and his father (a heart-wrenching Yayu AW Unru), who also happens to be his manager, show up at a local show. Indonesian chat show. The subject is James’ career, which will soon take him to Hawaii to record his first actual album, but to do so he will have to “separate” from his father, at least professionally. This comes as a surprise to his father, who, despite his lack of knowledge of the music world and a serious aversion to travel (the reason for which is guessed and later explained in one of the film’s most stunning twists) seemed to, let’s say, always lead his youngest son. Not so.
Chon then presents, through an animated sequence, the story of the eponymous Jamojaya, an Indonesian folktale about a poisoned prince who turns into a banyan tree and whose family struggles to ponder the mystery and meaning of his new form. It’s a disturbing allegory that guides James and his father during a particularly difficult period in their lives and further separates them from each other.
When James leaves for Hawaii, he’s shocked to find that his father is hot on his tail and eager to help (even literally; at one point, the older man demotes himself to James’ assistant, ordering lunch for the pesky hangers-on, who clearly don’t want to care about any of them) son while trying to break into the music world. The clichés abound: the always welcome Kate Lyn Shiel appears as James’ new and predictably sleazy manager, Anthony Kiedis (!!) is on board as a music video director who only cares about his own vision, and “Lost” alum Henry Ian Cusick as label owner who is as mean as she is thin.
Much of the plot unfolds almost like a vignette, meant to expose the father-son disconnect in the most obvious way possible, with every discussion involving either screaming fights or oft-repeated platitudes. The odd spurts of humor are distracting (please don’t cast the wonderfully funny Kyle Mooney in a cameo role and expect the audience not to gag), detracting quite a bit from Imanuel and Unru’s work, which was finely tuned even in those moments when ‘Jamojaya’ as a whole does not.
Likewise, it’s overshadowed by Chon and Maegan Houang’s original screenplay: filmmaking techniques that provide scattered but serious moments of beauty and innovation, elevating a film that has too often sunk into cliché. Did you know that the music industry is full of art-destroying vultures? Is this grief confusing? How can family secrets hurt? All of this and more (if more means ‘oddly enough, the most beautifully objective segment requires watching James’s dad humiliate himself with loads of molly while lap dancing in a seedy strip club and Billie Eilish’s ‘Ocean Eyes’ their piece is being played. the whole, horrible affair”), and somehow less so.
“Jamojaya” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Currently looking for distribution.
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