Writer-director Justin Chon’s “Jamojaya” takes a fresh off-kilter look at the age-old tales of entertainment industry corruption and suffocating stage-parenting, which comes unstuck in a few days in the life of a budding Indonesian rapper when he tries to hook up with his ex-manager. Severed professional ties, who was also his father. In many ways Chan’s memorable 2019 Sundance feature “Ms. Purple,” “Jamojaya” is elevated above the familiar narrative pace by sensitive camerawork and a pair of intriguing performances, and its suggestion that show-business ambitions and family ties don’t collide so much as unfold on parallel tracks.
The film debut of Jakarta-native rapper Brian “Rich Brian” Emanuel, who rose to sudden viral fame in 2016, “Jamojaya” stars him as James, a young MC who finds himself in a similar situation. With enough heat on his name to attract the attention of American record labels, James signed a contract and set up shop in a luxury beach house in Hawaii to record his debut album. He has a new manager, the no-nonsense Shannon (Kate Lynn Sheil). A pretentious, high-profile director (Chili Pepper’s Anthony Kiedis, clearly enjoying himself) is tapped to direct his first music video. And a team of producers, assistants and opportunistic hanger-ons have gathered around him, whether he wants them there or not.
Also lingering around the premises is Jayo (Yau AW Unru), James’s elderly, over-attentive father, who manages his son’s career until publicly dismissing it during an Indonesian TV interview. From a purely career perspective, you can see why James wanted another management. Joy knows virtually nothing about navigating the US music business, for one. And while James is good enough at code-switching to swim carefully with the school of industry sharks that suddenly surrounds him, Joyo sticks out like a sore thumb, at least when she’s not mistaken for a waiter.
Throughout the film, Joyo is perpetually on her way back to Indonesia so that James can focus on her album, but James doesn’t seem surprised to see her back home every morning, usually carrying a plastic bag of muddled fruit. As the film unfolds elliptically, we slowly glimpse deeper into their shared past, with the recent death of James’ older brother hanging heavily over every conversation. Working from a script he wrote with Megan Hwang, Chon constantly casts new shades of gray on their relationship. For all his determination to take charge of his own life, James’ reluctance to follow through on his many ultimatums to his father seems more than simple piety at work. And while his bumbling attempts to re-enter James’ career repeatedly threaten to sabotage it, Joyo is the only one who asks a few important questions. Like, who’s paying for James’ beach house, anyway?
Emmanuel acquits himself well during his first outing in front of the camera — if James’ inner life feels a bit hazy at times, that’s fitting for a young man who knows he’s on the path to realizing a dream, and is increasingly unsure whether that dream is actually his. And. But it’s Indonesian veteran Unru’s performance that gets under your skin. Her almost reflexive self-abasement before American music executives invites deep pathos, and her all-consuming love for both her sons is rendered with heartbreaking vividness. But you can also see how he employs these traits to keep himself in James’ orbit.
“Jamojaya” is more elaborate than Chon’s previous films, combining serio-comic vignettes of hip-hop star Ennui with sometimes-lyrical-sometimes-clumsy voice-over interludes. For all its streamlined skill—we never waste time on James’ rise to fame, but we also don’t get much of a sense of his ambitions as an artist—the film is loosely held together, held together by DP Ante Cheng’s wonderfully intuitive camerawork. Equal parts dreamy and whimsical, the film’s visual style presents Hawaii as a gorgeous, ethereal sort of purgatory, and if James can’t escape it with both his career and his family intact, it’s likely never built on solid ground to begin with.