‘Jamojaya’ Review: Justin Chon Drops Rich Brian Into Thin Musical Drama

Sundance: Chon’s latest film offers moments of beauty and innovation, but they’re entangled in the filmmaker’s most narratively mundane feature film yet.

As a director, Justin Chon has long dealt with stories about broken families in difficult situations. “Gook” was about two brothers who ran their father’s shoe shop after his death and in the shadow of the riots in Los Angeles. “MS. 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 US while the government tries to throw him out .

Fathers, children and terrifying outside forces also feature in his fifth feature film, Jamojaya, which continues Chon’s traditional obsession but wraps it in a superficial story full of predictable problems, obvious villains and hackneyed lessons. By expanding his point of view beyond his normally smaller stories – both in terms of the film’s overall plot, which follows an aspiring young rapper who learns (gasp) that the music industry sucks, and in trying to match it with new film techniques, like a new inclination towards handheld camerawork, Chon unfortunately still makes his most emotionally and narratively thin feature film yet.

It starts out strong enough: aspiring young rapper James (played by aspiring young rapper, viral star Brian “Rich Brian” Imanuel) and his father (a heartbreaking Yayu AW Unru), who also serves as his manager, perform at a local bar Indonesian chat show. The topic is James’ career, which will take him to Hawaii to record his first real album there, but which will also force him 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 dislike for travel (the reason for this is hinted at and later explained in one of the film’s most compelling turns), seemed assuming that he would always lead 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 transforms into a banyan tree and whose family struggles to understand the mystery and meaning of his new form. It’s a stirring allegory that will both guide and further separate James and his father at a particularly tense time in their lives.

When James leaves for Hawaii, he’s shocked that his father is hot on his heels and willing to help (literally, actually; eventually, the older man demotes himself to being James’ assistant, ordering lunch for annoying followers who obviously don’t take care of one of them), his son while trying to break into the music world. The clichés run rampant: the ever-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 a ‘Lost’ graduate Henry Ian Cusick is the evil and thinly drawn label owner.

Much of the action unfolds almost as vignettes that seem to hammer away at the father-son split in the most obvious of ways, while each discussion involves either screaming fights or oft-repeated platitudes. Weird humor distracts (please don’t cast the wonderfully funny Kyle Mooney in a short role and don’t expect the audience to giggle), enough to distract from the work of Imanuel and Unru, which is fine-tuned even in the moments in which “Jamojaya” altogether does not.

Similarly obscured by Chon and Maegan Houang’s original screenplay: filmmaking techniques that offer isolated but serious moments of beauty and innovation, refreshing a film that all too often seems mired in cliché. Did you know the music industry is full of art-crushing vultures? That grief is messy? That family secrets can hurt? All this and more (if more means ‘oddly’, the best-lens segment requires us to watch James’ dad humiliate himself with plenty of Molly while he gets a lap dance at a seedy strip club and Billie Eilish’s “Ocean Eyes” the whole, horrible affair comes to an end”), and somehow less.

Grade: C+

Jamojaya premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently looking for distribution.

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https://www.indiewire.com/2023/01/jamojaya-review-justin-chon-rich-brian-1234797998/ ‘Jamojaya’ Review: Justin Chon Drops Rich Brian Into Thin Musical Drama

Lindsay Lowe

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