There is no shortage of stories about fathers and their kids, specifically sons. But in Justin Chon’s (“Gook,” “Ms. Purple”) film, “Jamojaya,” the relationship becomes bogged down with the added aspect of career and ambition. There’s the duty that a father feels toward his son and a son’s desire to take care of himself and fly away from his father. But amidst all that, the relationship that drives the story can become a bit muddled in the imagery and silences in the film at times.
The movie focuses on James (Brian Imanuel), a rapper from Indonesia with growing popularity in the States. He signs with a big label and goes to record his album in Hawai’i, where his father is no longer a part of his creative process. Or his career at all. His father, Joyo (Yayu A.W. Unru), was once his manager, but James wanted to move on to bigger things and work with a company that had a better understanding of the industry.
There’s also this looming shadow of James’ brother’s death throughout the film, which impacts how their father now lives his life. His brother, Jaya’s death also fuels James’ growing frustration with his father. Jaya died in an airplane crash on his way to see James in Los Angeles, something his father didn’t do himself, and now Joyo can’t travel because of it. But when James goes off to Hawai’i, his father does follow. And as you’d expect from a father who isn’t inside of the music industry, he walks around with this lost sense about him, trying to help in any way he can. He becomes a very sympathetic character for the audience in this way, transferring that sense of bewilderment and being a fish out of the water to the audience. You can’t help but feel for him.
But his father isn’t the type to demand his job back as manager, and he’s not the type to steamroll over James or his new staff. Instead, his dad is very smiley and tries not to be a nuisance. He helps with messes and becomes almost like a server or waiter, coming off as submissive, something James loses his patience over. He’s timid in how he approaches this situation, bargaining with James to let him stay on as an assistant so that he can help his son and be with him.
This dance of James wanting to separate himself from his father and his father trying to help and become a part of his son’s life and music career again is the core aspect of “Jamojaya.” However, when the movie moves away from that or gets too caught up in artistic silences, the film can become a bit listless, at times bordering on flat or tedious. Imanuel and Yayu A.W. Unru’s performances carry a lot of weight, and they capture this father and son’s pain, anguish, and frustration so well. You can’t look away from their tragic relationship, and they carry out some of Chon’s most harrowing dialogue in such a raw way.
This father/son dynamic gets lost and muddied with some artistic imagery that stops the film’s momentum at certain spots. Plus, some choices just felt off, like using Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” over a climactic fight scene at the end. It definitely helps the already-frenzied scene feel a bit more seismic, but it also feels like an out-of-place, misplaced choice.
But again, James and Joyo’s tumultuous relationship is where the movie thrives, and it does a service to the film when it ends with a quiet moment between the two of them after that action-packed scene. James told his father that he resented the fact that he was 15 and alone, trying to build a career when he needed him. Joyo didn’t think his son did and didn’t step up to help James. But in the end, James is like a little boy again, resting on his father’s legs. And Joyo is finally able to be there for him. During the movie, the two speak about a story involving a bird searching for its tree to land on. And while James said his father was the bird, Joyo tells his son that he’s actually the tree. The tree to James’ bird, constantly searching for where he belongs, where his anchor is.
Despite its slow moments, it shouldn’t take away from how this film honors this complex relationship between father and son. There are definitely cultural points and nuanced aspects that someone outside of their community can miss. But “Jamojaya” isn’t made for that audience. It’s a touching film that honors these two men, the challenging nature of their relationship, and how they can find their way back to one another. [C+]