‘Jamojaya’ Tells a Tale of a Grieving Family

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Ante Cheng

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

The dictionary defines grief as a deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone’s death. It’s an emotion that can be felt and expressed in countless different ways, and it’s a feeling that can either bring people closer or tear them apart. In Jamojaya, up-and-coming Indonesian rapper James (Brian Imanuel) and his father Joyo (Yayu A.W. Unru) learn how to deal with grief in a whirlwind of events that eventually leads the pair to finding their own identities.

Growing up in Indonesia, James and his older brother Jaya were named after the folktale of Prince Jamojaya – their father’s favorite story to tell and their least favorite to listen to. In this tale, Prince Jamojaya was poisoned and passed away, but the gods took mercy and turned him into a banyan tree to live forever. Riddled with grief, the prince’s brother Raden prayed to the gods to become a bird to search for his dear brother. With his wish granted, Raden flew around the world searching for his brother, even landing on the branches of Prince Jamojaya’s banyan tree. Because the two were no longer of the same species, however, their cries of “Brother” and “I am your brother” could not be heard by one another, creating an endless cycle of longing and grieving.

Taking inspiration from this folktale, the 2022 film tells a similar story. When Jaya passes away in the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014, each member of their family takes the news differently. At the time of the incident, James was in Los Angeles pursuing his music career, and Joyo, who was his manager, was supposed to fly out to support him. Fearing flying, however, Joyo sent Jaya instead, inadvertently pushing Jaya towards his unfortunate and untimely demise. The brothers’ mother blames Joyo and eventually leaves the family. James and Joyo both blame themselves and one another, choosing to avoid thinking about the incident and wallowing in their sorrow instead.

This leads to the present day, as James flies to Hawaii to work on an album with his new record label after firing Joyo as his manager. Joyo refuses to accept this as he follows James to Hawaii, showing up at a fancy dinner with label executives with a bag of banyan tree apples. He is mistaken as wait staff and catches James’ attention when he fills someone’s water cup, but he is escorted out by James and his new manager. Allowing Joyo to live with him until his return flight, Joyo continuously ignores James’ requests for him to go back to Indonesia, creating a series of conflicts that eventually explodes into one big argument where James admits he wishes Joyo had died instead of Jaya. This admission is the emotional climax of the film, which ultimately winds down with the father and son making up and realizing they are much like the bird and the banyan tree – only, instead of Joyo being the bird as they declared earlier, Joyo acts as the banyan tree for his son.

Having made his directorial debut in 2017 with his Sundance Film Festival award-winning film Gook, Jamojaya is Justin Chon’s latest project. Chon often explores the Asian diaspora family experience, and this film is another look at the family dynamic. It evokes raw emotions from viewers, especially with the relatability of pursuing your dreams in the arts despite the challenges and having to unlearn the habit of keeping emotions bottled up to prevent showing weakness. James and Joyo skirt around the elephant in the room, Jaya, and choose to ignore their problems, blaming each other and repressing their emotions until they spill over in an argument full of venomous words. Watching James and Joyo reach their revelation together that they’re much more similar than they had realized felt like the first step in a much-needed healing process.

Yayu A.W. Unru and Brian Imanuel (known most commonly as rapper Rich Brian) skillfully played their characters, filling in what they needed to say with their emotive eyes and facial expressions when their words failed them. The pair also had an undeniable chemistry on-screen, depicting the father and son characters naturally as they switched between speaking English and Indonesian, which only served to emphasize those emotions even more. Their mannerisms and arguments were explosive, yet they weren’t overly exaggerated and unrealistic. The two actors embodied their characters, with each shout and each cry piercing the viewers’ hearts with how genuine they were.

Dynamically filmed, Jamojaya was full of natural framing, perspective switches, and contrasting shots that helped tell the story. Eruptive scenes filled with angry dialogue were paired with serene landscape scenery; the sounds of nature could be heard clearly, yet were muted when tensions rose between the father and son, and each venomous exchange was filmed bouncing back and forth between the pair, showing the growing emotions clearly on each of their faces. One simple yet impactful motif that made several appearances was a switch in perspective as it showed Joyo following James. Various times throughout the film, the camera would focus on James in front before panning to Joyo as he watched and followed after his son. This motif effectively and literally showed that the pair had yet to see each other eye-to-eye.

Much like Justin Chon’s previous films, Jamojaya is one that leaves the viewer thinking about it even after it’s over. Depicting an imperfect, realistic relationship between a father and son who are still learning how to deal with their grief, this film tells a story that will strike a chord within viewers.

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