The first 10pm screening I ever attended at the Sundance Film Festival was Justin Chon’s Ms. Purple, which, while melodically slow, was absolutely captivating and well worth the late hour. Chon starred in his subsequent film, Blue Bayou, a more conventional drama about a family torn apart by unexpected immigration news. His latest, Jamojaya, is something else entirely, a grand story of father and son that includes Indonesian fables and rap music. This ambitious film aims high, tries for a lot and occasionally accomplishes it.
James (Brian Imanuel) is a rapper who has it big. After having his Indonesian father, Joyo (Yaya A.W. Unru), as his hard-working manager, he is now staying in a luxurious guest house in Hawaii, with new representation in the form of Shannon (Kate Lyn Sheil), and the powerful label owner, Michael (Henry Ian Cusick), promising a bright future. James’ father’s presence, however well-meaning, quickly becomes a distraction, but James starts to realize that the irremovable connection to his heritage may be something that he’s not ready to leave behind or forget.
There is an undercurrent of sadness that runs through this film due to the untimely death of James’ brother years earlier. Joyo frequently invokes his memory as he recalls their childhood and the fable he used to tell them both all too often. Joyo spends his time wandering through the forest and gathering fruit, paying tribute to the trees that instill life and represent a different kind of luxury than James has in his new accommodations. When James explains that he will eventually have to repay all the costs of this lifestyle, his father asks why he couldn’t just stay somewhere smaller and save the money. Excess and riches aren’t of value to Joyo, but James is still reeling in his meteoric rise.
The world that James comes from is very different than the one which he now inhabits, and he serves as a bridge between the two. Unlike his father, he speaks English fluently and comfortably after living in America. He has a willingness to adapt and evolve to what’s expected of him, though he does still wish to honor his late brother by wearing a suit of his, which is mocked and dismissed by Michael, who is interested only in control and profit. Every artist is forced to make sacrifices, but much of what James gives up has to do with his cultural identity, which doesn’t make him as universally marketable.
Chon had a distinct style in Ms. Purple that made the events feel surreal and as if its protagonist was floating through her life. Blue Bayou was much more straightforward, and Jamojaya mixes the two. There are moments where James and Joyo wander through the forest and it feels as if they’ve been transported into memory, far from the intensity of fame and the unexpected mundanity of a life in the spotlight. Chon goes for certain visual elements that aren’t always effective, but it’s certainly an experience that pulls its viewers in to its storyline.
This is the acting debut for Imanuel, who raps under the name Rich Brian and has contributed music for projects including Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. He proves to be a fitting choice to anchor this story, channeling his conflicting identities and showing how they are tearing him apart. Unru truly digs into Joyo and the devotion he feels to his son, who he also wishes would respect his desired role in his life. The scenes in which they break down their true differences and are fully honest with each other are the most compelling, the highlights of a project that isn’t always even but contains a potent and passionate story of unbreakable familial connection.
Jamojaya makes its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres section.