Reel Reviews | Jamojaya (Sundance ’23)

by Charles Kirkland, Jr.

Grief, guilt, and shame threaten to derail the career of an up-and-coming Indonesian rapper in the movie Jamojaya.

When Indonesian rapper, James’ (Brian Immanuel) career starts to take off, he realizes that things have to change. The first thing to change is his manager so he fires him. Unfortunately, his manager was also his father Joyo (Yayu A. W. Unru). But even after being fired, Joyo finds his way to Hawaii to help his son navigate the harsh and sometimes unforgiving world of music. With his other son dead and his wife having let him, what else does he have to do? After all, shouldn’t a son want his father around when things go crazy?

Written by Justin Chon and Maegan Houang, Jamojaya stars Brian Imanuel, Yayu A. W. Unru, Kate Lyn Sheil, Henry Ian Cusik, and Anthony Kiedis. The movie is also directed by Justin Chon whose last Sundance feature Gook was a festival darling.

Jamojaya is a story about grief and loss that has overwhelmed the relationship between a man and his father. As a backdrop for the movie, a story is told about a poisoned prince who begs the gods to save his life. They turn him into a banyan tree. The brother of the prince longs to find his brother and the gods turned him into a bird. Sadly, the bird never finds his brother because the tree and the bird are unable to communicate with each other. This story is a favorite of Joyo and he names his two sons after the prince, Jamojaya. The irony of the situation is that the lack of the ability to communicate plagues James and his father Joyo throughout the movie.

Unfortunately, the lack of communication is not the only thing plaguing this movie. Justin Chon’s story is fraught with tonal issues. The movie never really decides what it is going to be. The father and son go through a number of scenes including a night at a strip club that would be awkward for a father and son to engage in together but the result would be a type of coming together. But no. Chon can’t decide whether to bring them together or tear them apart. Even after a heightened climatic scene between the two, the movie engages in a ridiculously, impossible fight scene that attempts to do what should have been done two scenes before.

In between these two scenes comes one that is utterly despicable. During Joyo’s journey for resolution with the shouting match that occurred with James, he walks out of the water onto the beach while the song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holliday plays. Knowing the significance of the song, what it is about, and what it means to the Black community, it feels totally inappropriate and nearing offensive to attach that song, which is about lynchings, to a man’s rise from the water. Holliday was arrested more than once for singing that song about the plight of black people on stage. To place that song in that scene trivializes the song’s relevance and importance. It is plainly poor judgment.

Jamojaya wastes the performances of real-life rapper Brian Imanuel (AKA Rich Brian) and Yayu A. W. Unru in a mashup of ideas and concepts that should have been put together so much more coherently.

In English and Bahasa Indonesian with subtitles

Grade: D+