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“Jamojaya”: A Rapper, a Record Company, and the Banyan Tree


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By Vanessa Zimmer

Kim Yutani introduces Justin Chon (Gook, Ms. Purple) after Sunday night’s premiere of Jamojaya, his lushly shot tale of an Indonesian artist, at the Sundance Film Festival with some strong words. “I feel like this is you at the top of your game,” the Festival’s director of programming tells Chon.

“I just keep practicing,” responds Chon. “With every film, I’m trying to stretch and not do the same thing.” 

Jamojaya is the story of James, a young Indonesian rapper offered a record deal with a U.S. company that could make him a big star. But it is also the story of the banyan tree and a father who cannot let go. 

Joyo (Yayu A.W. Unru) is the father, who often told his young sons, Jaya and James, the tale of a prince who was turned into a banyan tree and the prince’s brother, who became a bird to go looking for him. According to the tale, the bird landed in the banyan tree and the prince welcomed him, but the brother could not understand his words, and so he flew away, searching for his brother forever.

Sadly, Jaya perished on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, and James ( Brian Imanuel aka Rich Brian), with his signature clean-cut look and an accompanying costumed children’s choir, became a rap star in his country. Single father Joyo followed along as James’ manager. 

As James’ star ascended, he hired a professional manager, but Joyo could not let go. Joyo continued to shadow his son James and mourn the loss of Jaya. Neither Joyo — nor the record label, it turns out — seemed content to just let James be himself. 

And Joyo was always gathering the fruit from beneath the banyan tree, a unique tree with roots that sprout from the branches and eventually drop down to the soil to become roots once more, producing an ever-spreading canopy. 

Chon, who also co-wrote the story, presents a moving and well-acted film about loss and family, the branches and the tree. 

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