Sundance: Chon’s latest offers moments of beauty and innovation, but they’re mired in the filmmaker’s most narratively trite feature yet.
As a director, Justin Chon has long trafficked in stories about fractured families in heightened situations. “Gook” was about a pair of brothers running their father’s shoe store in the aftermath of his death and in the shadow of the Los Angeles riots. “Ms. Purple” followed estranged siblings trying to make amends with their father before his death. “Blue Bayou” cast Chon himself as an immigrant father attempting to stay in the U.S. while the government tries to toss him out.
Fathers, children, and terrible outside forces are also at play in his fifth feature film, “Jamojaya,” which continues Chon’s traditional obsessions but wraps them in a shallow story filled with predictable problems, obvious baddies, and trite lessons. In expanding his viewpoint beyond his typically smaller-scale stories — both in terms of the film’s general plot, which follows a rising young rapper who learns (gasp) that the music industry is bad, and in attempting new filmmaking techniques to match it, like a new bent toward hand-held camerawork — Chon unfortunately still turns in his emotionally and narratively thinnest feature to date.
It starts strong enough: rising young rapper James (played by an actual rising young rapper, viral star Brian “Rich Brian” Imanuel) and his father (a heartbreaking Yayu A.W. Unru), who also serves as his manager, are appearing on a local Indonesian chat show. The topic is James’ career, which is about to take him to Hawaii to record his first actual album, but which also necessitates him “parting ways” with his father, at least in a professional capacity. This comes as a surprise to his dad who, despite a lack of knowledge of the music world and a serious aversion to traveling (the reason of which is hinted at, and then later explained in one of the film’s most compelling twists), seemed to assume he would always be guiding his youngest son. Not so.
Chon then introduces, via an animated sequence, the story of the eponymous Jamojaya, an Indonesian folk tale about a poisoned prince who turns into a banyan tree, and whose family struggles to contemplate the mystery and meaning of his new form. It’s a stirring allegory that will both guide and further pull apart James and his father during a particularly fraught time in both of their lives.
When James sets out for Hawaii, he’s shocked to find his father hot on his tail, eager to assist (even literally; at one point the older man downgrades himself to James’ assistant, ordering lunches for annoying hangers-on who clearly don’t care about either of them) his son as he attempts to break into the music world. The cliches run rampant: the always-welcome Kate Lyn Shiel appears as James’ new and predictably bitchy manager, Anthony Kiedis (!!) is on deck as a music video director who only cares about his own vision, and “Lost” alum Henry Ian Cusick is the label owner who is as evil as he is thinly drawn.
Much of the action unfolds nearly as vignettes, which seem meant to hammer home the disconnection between father and son in the most obvious of ways, while every discussion either involves screaming fights or oft-repeated platitudes. Odd pops of humor distract (please don’t cast the wonderfully funny Kyle Mooney in a brief role and expect audiences not to titter), enough to detract from Imanuel and Unru’s work, which is finely tuned even in the moments in which “Jamojaya” as a whole is not.
Similarly obscured by Chon and Maegan Houang’s original screenplay: filmmaking techniques that provide scattered but serious moments of beauty and innovation, lifting a film that too often feels mired in cliches. Did you know that the music industry is filled with art-destroying vultures? That grief is messy? That familial secrets can harm? All this and more (if more means “weirdly, the most gorgeously lensed segment requires us to watch James’ father debase himself with copious amounts of molly while getting a lap-dance at a seedy strip club and Billie Eilish’s ‘Ocean Eyes’ plays over the entire, horrifying affair”), and somehow also, less.
“Jamojaya” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.