Sundance movie review: Rich Brian rap powers touching 'Jamojaya'

Joyo (Yayu A.W. Unru, L) follows his son James (Brian Imanuel) in "Jamojaya." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
1 of 5 | Joyo (Yayu A.W. Unru, L) follows his son James (Brian Imanuel) in "Jamojaya." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Jan. 23 (UPI) -- Jamojaya, which premiered Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival, is a father/son tale set in the recording industry between cultural barriers. Writer/director Justin Chon balances all the intersecting issues beautifully and still creates a universally moving drama.

James (Brian Imanel) is a rapper from Asia embarking on a U.S. music career. As such, his father Joyo (Yayu A.W. Unru) will no longer be his manager.


Joyo visits James while he is living in Hawaii and recording his album. James' new manager, Shannon (Kate Lyn Sheil) tries to jeep Joyo out of James' business but she is kind about it because she understands it's more personal to Joyo.

Joyo rightfully questions the process of James staying in the label's lavish mansion which they are charging against his future sales. Joyo also questions all the spending on assistants and events.

The story by Chon and Maegan Houang captures a very real phenomenon that surprises a lot of new artists, but against which veterans speak. Record labels keep artists indebted to them so they remain dependent and can never really own their own work.

James also faces threats to his artistic integrity. He has ideas for his first video, but the director steamrolls them.


The head of the label, Michael (Henry Ian Cusick), also pressures James to sell him some rights that James prefers to keep to himself.

Jamojaya captures the overwhelming world of the recording industry. James has ideals but will be forced to compromise for his success.

Chon follows James through concerts and parties in long tracking shots that become more and more uncomfortable the longer the viewer is stuck in those environments. Edited montages of partying capture the intensity too, and surreal dream sequences reflect James' anxieties with a more avant-garde approach.

James' rap concerts have energy. Imanuel, who raps under the name Rich Brian, wrote James' raps in the movie too so Rich Brian fans will get to hear some new material.

James also wants to welcome his father enough to share his success with him. Joyo goes along with things as long as he can but the protective nature of a father inevitably comes out too.

Joyo and James also continue to mourn James' older brother, Jamojaya, named after a myth Joyo used to tell as a bedtime story. The myth parallels James' journey, and the tragic backstory also reveals buried family secrets.

Chon has been an actor since 2005 and directed his first feature film in 2015. Jamojaya, his fifth feature along with four episodes of the series Pachinko, reflects Chon's growing assurance with the craft of filmmaking and ability to make personal stories universal.


Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

Latest Headlines