Justin Chon took whatever juice playing one of the humans in Twilight got him and parlayed it into directing feature films, and I love that for him. His latest is Jamojaya, a father-son tale starring Indonesian star Yayu A.W. Unru and rapper Brian “Rich Brian” Imanuel (making his acting debut) as Papa and James, respectively. James seems at least partly inspired by Imanuel, as James is a breakout Indonesian rapper courted by the American music industry following his success at home, though James is also dealing with a stage-parent father who is also his manager. At the beginning of the film, James fires his father on an Indonesian talk show, and things don’t really get better from there.
Over the course of a few critical days in James’s career, we see bits and pieces of his relationship with his father, who obviously loves him but is also clinging to James, perhaps because he wants to retain control of his son’s burgeoning career, but also because his other son, Jaya, died (it’s implied he was a victim of Malaysian Airlines flight 370, which also feeds the father’s dislike of travel). James and his father struggle with their grief, as the father idealizes Jaya, but James remembers a less perfect version of his brother, though that both men miss Jaya is clear. Because of all the space Chon leaves in the narrative—he co-wrote the film with Maegan Houang—it’s easy to imagine Jaya filling the gaps between James and his father, perhaps smoothing an already difficult relationship further complicated by the money and fame coming for James.
But James’s career path is not smooth sailing. There is literally no part of him not being co-opted by his new record label, he can’t even wear clothes he chooses for himself. And it is certainly conspicuous that James is surrounded by white people who love his backstory but don’t want to bring any of his Indonesian culture to his debut album—and who routinely mistake his father for a waiter. James’s father is making his life harder, though, putting his record deal in jeopardy and backing James into corners that force him to further cede control to the label owner. But his father is also the only person defending James’s creative decisions and pushing James to stay connected despite the outside forces beyond his control shaping him into someone else.
Chon tends to let his films hang together loosely, which creates an impressionistic feel that he fully leans into with Jamojaya, using everything from vignette-style scenes to surreal imagery to dream sequences to disjointed voiceovers to depict James’s interminable stint in Hawaii while recording his album. Chon’s films can be a test of how many of his stylistic choices you can roll with at once (his episodes of Pachinko are interesting in part because of how Chon must bend to fit into the established series style), but Jamojaya is one of his more cohesive efforts. Yes, there’s a lot going on stylistically, but the narrative is simple so there is plenty of room to play in the margins, and Unru and Imanuel are more than capable of anchoring the narrative and Chon’s many grace notes.
Jamojaya is terribly cynical about how artists must compromise to succeed—especially non-white artists working in industries where all the people in power are white—but there are touches of humor here and there; Anthony Kiedis is having a great time in a small role as a prima donna director. Chon’s narrative is loose enough you can ascribe multiple meanings to things, so James’s father could just be a controlling stage parent afraid of losing control, but he also seems to see red flags about these Americans that James, in his anxiousness to make it, is ignoring. Nothing is cut and dry in Jamojaya, from the messiness of grief to the thorniness of a father-son relationship burdened by expectation and loss. Justin Chon’s work remains challenging and expressive, and Jamojaya, for all its freestyling, is one of his strongest efforts to date. Who knew Twilight was going to end up spawning one of the most interesting creative classes of the 21st century?