Written by: Hannah Tran | February 1st, 2023
In only a few short years, actor-turned-director Justin Chon has established himself as a major voice within independent filmmaking. Following his first three feature films—Gook, Ms. Purple, and Blue Bayou—Chon is back with Jamojaya, a lush, meditative tale about the power struggle between a young Indonesian rapper and his father as they attempt to navigate the future of his career while mourning the death of their brother/son. Covering ideas surrounding racial identity, the immigrant experience, and class struggle, Chon is a highly empathetic storyteller with a distinct stylistic vision. I was lucky enough to sit down and speak with him about his latest film at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it had its world premiere. Below is a transcript of that conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Hannah Tran: So your first two films premiered here at Sundance. What’s it like to be back?
Justin Chon: I love Sundance. There’s always such a supportive film community here. You have to travel to get here. It’s not just a simple drive across town, so everyone who is here really wants to be here and watch films. It definitely feels like one of the best places you could exhibit your work.
HT: For sure. It was a fun experience to be back in person and to hear the crowd’s reaction to some of the moments in your movie, especially a certain scene with the music producer character.
JC: Yes, I was surprised about that too! I didn’t expect it to get that big of a reaction.
HT: This film feels like a natural evolution from your other work in terms of its themes and style, but I was surprised by how much more atmospheric this one felt. I was wondering if you had that intention when you were initially envisioning this movie.
JC: To be honest, I did. I had the idea of making a quieter film. I feel the others were quite bombastic, and I just wanted to see if I could do it. I wanted to see if I could do something in a different vein. But, as you said, this still has my fingerprint on it. It’s not a complete departure from my other work, but I’m always going to be practicing and trying new things and pushing myself. That’s what’s fun to me. I want to grow instead of just sticking with what I know. I think that’d be quite boring after a few films.
HT: One thing that did carry over into this film was your continued collaboration with certain people, such as your DP, Ante Cheng, and your editor, Reynolds Barney. What was it like working with them again on this one, and how has your relationship changed?
JC: I think it’s great. I love doing that, but I also think there are certain cycles. I’m starting to venture out and collaborate with new people, not because I don’t like the people I work with, but because you sometimes need new input to grow. If you’re just relying on what you’ve done before and the comfort in those relationships, I think it actually becomes a crutch. The other thing is that I’m putting out work at a high speed, but I think it’s beneficial to everyone to go out into the world and experience stuff and then come back. So working on Jamo was obviously wonderful, but I did feel that it would probably help all of us to push ourselves and be a little uncomfortable with other people and then come back and be able to share what we’ve learned.
HT: You’ve said that you are not trying to make a perfect movie, and I admire the way you look at filmmaking as an exercise to be learned from for the next one.
JC: Yeah, I could keep working on this film forever, but eventually I just have to stop. There are people like Tarantino who say they’re only going to make 10, and if you’re only making 10, each one of them better be really good. I don’t feel that way. Ultimately, I have to keep swinging. I don’t know where I’ll be when I’m 50 or the types of things I’ll want to talk about. When I’m in my eighties, like Francis Ford Coppola, maybe I will want to take all my money and make one last hurrah film. I think the excitement is that we don’t know what’s going to happen, but I want to keep learning and making stuff right now.
HT: Another thing that felt risky in this one was the really well-executed long take near the beginning of the film. How did that come about?
JC: That was always in it from the script phase. I always had this idea of this long sequence that would show him dealing with all his music stuff, his manager, and the awkward tension between him and his dad that leads up to his performance. I wanted it to be a rollercoaster. In Blue Bayou, I did a very long take when Antonio and Kathy get in a fight, but that was handheld. This was Steadicam. That was unbroken because I wanted people to feel like they were there, present for the fight, and there would be no manipulation because there would be no cuts. With Jamojaya, I wanted it to be more experiential, and because we don’t cut, there’s this weird tension that starts to build, and you feel that there is something off between father and son.
HT: I wanted to ask you about the very diverse array of music choices in this film. There are many different needle drops, ranging from a spiritual children’s choir to the famous song Strange Fruit, which I remember you also used in the score for Ms. Purple.
JC: At the Q&A, I was talking about how one of the things I can improve on is tone. One of the main critiques I get is that my tone is all over the place, but I can’t help it. I have an eclectic music taste, and different styles feel appropriate for different moments. It feels like music is an extension of the characters and how they feel at a certain time. You’re the first person that picked up on both of those movies using that, but it’s in entirely different contexts. For Ms. Purple, I was going off of the Nina Simone version, but I had someone that had the right soul fly in from the east coast to record that, and it was a different feeling. For this one, we had the Billie Holiday version. Even though the songs are the same, they make you feel an entirely different way. I know what the song is about, and, for a second, I was like ‘I probably shouldn’t use this,’ but it felt perfect. The way I wanted to use it was much more an interpretation of the father and son’s relationship and the father having this weird affinity with the apples and what they’ve lost and how they’ve dealt with death while feeling like they are not supported by the system.
HT: It was also interesting to see how this music interacted with the music by your lead actor, the rapper Rich Brian. What was it like working with someone who is a recognized talent in a different creative realm?
JC: Awesome. Art is art. I have huge respect for what Brian does because I could never do that, but there are certain fundamental tools to all art. I think Brian also learned a lot and was stoked about what we were doing by making a film. There are different disciplines, but there’s crossover as well. There’s structure to a song, just like with film scripts. So it was cool to have those artistic conversations with him. He’s very talented at what he does in music, but it was a pretty seamless sort of working process and relationship.
HT: People often ascribe the word “melodrama” to your films. How do you feel about that, and have melodramatic films felt like a big influence on you?
JC: 100%. It’s weird because the other main complaint I hear about my films is that they’re melodramatic, but is that a bad thing?
HT: I think that American audiences tend to struggle with melodrama because it’s not something that they’re used to seeing.
JC: Yeah, because I feel like in Asia, that’s almost what is desired. In this film, I wanted people to feel their pain and feel how much friction the core relationship has. Even with this film being quieter, I still have those melodramatic moments, and I’d feel very unfulfilled without those. I also worked on the television series Pachinko, which has critical acclaim but is also melodramatic. They feel it is acceptable there, but not in something like Blue Bayou, for example. I don’t know if it is the fashion in which I do it, but I’m not sure what makes one better than the other. So yes, it feels like it has a more negative connotation in the United States, but I love melodramatic cinema and being able to express how you feel in that way. I don’t know, but I can’t care, because I need to express myself as an artist without adhering to the outside noise, otherwise I’m just a cheap product of what everyone is saying.
HT: I also believe that most people tend to view their own lives from a melodramatic perspective, so I think your characters are relatable in this regard. I also remember you talking about how specificity in writing allows for a unique relatability. Like, most people can’t relate to being an Indonesian rapper, but they can relate to the feeling of being embarrassed by themselves or their family.
JC: I think that is the kind of stuff that unites all of us, and cinema is so beautiful because it’s almost communal. Did you see Titane? Even in a movie as provocative and crazy and gnarly as that, there are still human elements you can relate to, and I think that’s the beauty of film.
Let me ask you a question though. I make a film from whatever point of inspiration I have and for my own personal psyche, but from someone who has watched my films, what do you think my next sort of mission is? Like, what trajectory do you think would feel right or exciting?
HT: Well, I was excited by how this one felt more atmospheric, but most of all, I really like what you do with familial and nonfamilial relationships. I like the way you explore how two people’s relationship, whether they’re a couple or siblings or a parent and child, can be affected by someone else’s presence. I don’t know if I have an answer that is different than what your other films already are, but I like to see you exploring so many classes and spectrums of life.
JC: So would you be interested in something that was very masculine but still dealt with those themes of relationships, but it also had, like, lots of action or something?
HT: Yeah! I think what I’m trying to say is that I’m interested in how you take a lot of the same themes and present them in such different ways with such different characters and how it can lead to such different consequences.
JC: I always wonder what people think I’m going to do or what they think I should do. It’s just more input for me to process, and I’m appreciative that you can break it down like that, because, when you distill it, that is what I do, and I want to package that in a way that’s fresh and unusual. It’s funny you say that about unconventional families and relationships between two people and how another person enters because I have something just like about these two brothers that I will probably do next. So, that’s helpful to hear because I feel like maybe I’m doing something right.
HT: I think you are, and I can’t wait to see it, whatever it is. Thank you so much for talking with me, and I hope you enjoy the rest of your Sundance.
JC: Yes, it was a wonderful conversation. Thank you.