‘Jamojaya’ Review: Justin Cho’s Family Drama Delivers Strong Performances, But a Weak Third Act | Sundance 2023
The music industry is infamously cutthroat and stories about musicians are either underdog stories or ones that place the industry as a relentless machine that churns talent through and spits them out. Jamojaya balances both of these types of stories along and then braids in the story of a father and son who have been estranged over time. Oftentimes this means that Jamojaya can feel a bit overstuffed, somehow managing to be slow and also jam-packed, but what shines through in the film is its leading performances.
Directed by Justin Chon, Jamojaya introduces Brian Imanuel into the acting scene. Better known for his acclaimed work as rapper Rich Brian, Imanuel holds his own against Yayu A. W. Unru, who has a prolific career in Indonesia. Imanuel plays James, an aspiring rapper who is on the cusp of finishing his debut album. He’s living in a luxurious mansion in Hawai’i, where he works on his music with increased interference from the record label. His father, Joyo (Unru), arrives still struggling with the death of his son, James’ older brother.
Joyo, we learn, was a formative figure in James’ early career in Indonesia where he acted as his manager. However, while Joyo is suffocating sometimes as a stage dad, he is also pitiable at times. He decides to work as James’ personal assistant, and James must watch as the people in the industry and in his life treat his father more as a servant than anything else. Written by Chon and Maegan Houang, there are often moments where the film feels clunky, where the story is taking on too much. There’s a rude and demeaning executive played by Henry Ian Cusick and James’ new unemotional manager played by Kate Lyn Sheil, but these characters take up space and time more than anything else.
Cusick’s character is essentially a cookie-cutter villain, while Sheil has glimmers of potential, but it ultimately feels unnecessary. Where Jamojaya shines is when both Unru and Imanuel are on the screen together. James and his father have an undeniably caustic and toxic relationship, but it’s compelling nonetheless. They both clearly love each other and they both clearly are still struggling with the loss of James’ brother, a potent mix that makes for a dysfunctional bond.
Chon seems to know that he has something here and the scenes where the two leads are just simply allowed to speak to each other and yell at each other are the highlights. Unfortunately, it’s intercut with unnecessary trips to a strip club or a melodramatic third act that feels wildly inconsistent with the tone of the rest of the movie. It’s trying to be too much and sacrificing its best assets as a result.
Despite all of that, Imanuel’s debut as an actor stands strong. It might be because Imanuel is in his element, playing a character who is quite close to his own life, but you can feel James’ fragility and frustration as the movie culminates. There are only a few moments where the camera centers on James the rapper, and the movie is made better for it. We know Imanuel is a fantastic rapper, but that isn’t the point of Jamojaya and Chon knows it. We never question James’ talent or his instincts, what we should be questioning is what has happened to one of his most fundamental relationships.
On top of Imanuel’s debut comes Unru’s stunning performance as Joyo. It’s safe to say that Jamojaya simply wouldn’t be the same without Unru’s performance. Although the film centers around James, we follow Joyo for much of the story, and we see things from his perspective. Yes, Joyo is controlling and proud at times, but it’s impossible not to feel for this old man who wears his mistakes heavy on his shoulders. Unru acts with his whole body and every muscle on his face, as a trained mime, there is little subtlety in his features but for Joyo this works. He doesn’t speak much, but we can read his every emotion right there on his face. As a person who has a soft spot for old parental figures, especially Asian dads, Unru’s performance was often the most stirring one on screen.
Chon paints a world of luxury and paradise mixed with poison and crooked power dynamics. The world of Jamojaya is one of a beautiful beach-side paradise and also a glossy, high-stakes hell built on the backs of artists and talent vultures. There’s a lot of commentary being made on the world of commercial music development, and a lot of it is compelling, but ultimately fades to the background as it should. Jamojaya is at its weakest when it pushes its music industry storyline to the forefront and the family drama into the background. But Imanuel and Unru’s performances are enough to give this film praise, and it will be exciting to see where Imanuel goes next in his burgeoning acting career.