A review of the movie Raya and the Last Dragon by Disney.
In a time of #BlackLivesMatter and #StopAsianHate, the animated movies Soul and Raya and the Last Dragon came about as refreshing pieces that gave a voice to the otherwise voiceless people in Disney productions. I thoroughly enjoyed the former, which shared many similarities with Inside Out; I was finally able to watch the latter in the cinema with a Southeast Asian friend of mine. It was mostly kids with their parents in the audience, but my friend and I did not come to watch a fairytale - we were here to see how our home region is portrayed in Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess movie.
I went in without watching the trailer, so I had little idea of what to anticipate beyond my first impression: that the protagonist is a girl named “greatness” (Raya in Bahasa) and she wields a keris sword. I did not have much expectation, thinking that it would just be another Tangled or Frozen but with a person of colour as the main character. But as soon as I saw the wayang in the narration of the dragon legend, I knew that this would be a great movie in terms of authentic Southeast Asian elements.
Unlike other Disney movies, Raya starts with a dystopian scene with the protagonist riding through a hot barren. Raya rides her gigantic unicycle with her legs open, with her hands on the handles - resembling a motorbike driver. That reminds me of my Gojek days in Jakarta on a hot July.
The whole story takes place in a civilization called Kumandra, with a big river in the shape of a dragon spanning across the land. Kumandra was ravaged by the Druun, a mindless plague which turned everyone it touches into stone. Five hundred years ago, the dragons united and created a magical orb (the Dragon Gem) that wiped out the Druun but left the dragon species extinct - except Sisu, the last dragon.
Fighting over what remains of the dragon magic, Kumandra disintegrated into five kingdoms called Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail - each of them representing different biomes. Chief Benja of Heart, father of Raya and Guardian of the Dragon Gem, sought to bring the five kingdoms together to form a united Kumandra again. His vision was unfortunately sabotaged by Fang.
Namaari, the daughter of Fang’s leader Virana, befriended Raya and followed her into the altar of the Dragon Gem. She betrayed her and led the Fang army into the altar. The magical orb fell on ground amidst the chaos and shattered into pieces. Immediately, the Druun spread like wildfire. Each of the leaders left with a piece of the gem, Benja gave his to Raya and told her to run just before he himself was turned to stone. Six years later, Raya was on the quest to find Sisu, thus her journeys across the dystopian world in the beginning of the movie.
Raya is different from most Disney movies in the sense that it is not a love story and there is absolutely no singing involved. As a Southeast Asian (and Southeast Asianist), watching Raya was like a hunt for Easter eggs: the way Raya took her shoes off before entering the altar of the dragon gem; the jade traded as currency; the frangipanis Sisu scattered on the water.
Raya put in lots of effort in showcasing a wide variety of regional delicacies throughout the whole movie. There are many familiar Southeast Asian foodstuffs starting with the tom yum broth Raya's father made and ending with the kuih lapis in the credits. It was literally eye candy all the way. Some of the references are quite colloquial. I could totally resonate with how Sisu dislikes Raya's homemade jackfruit jerky, and I completely agree with Tong: “Of course you love mango. Only a tongue-less creaton wouldn't.”
There is plenty of martial arts fighting going on in Raya, again setting it apart from previous Disney princess movies. In the beginning Raya sneaked into the temple guarding the Dragon Gem with two sticks that are known as arnis. This is the Phillipine national martial arts. Raya then inherited her father’s sword, a retractable keris that can be made to work like a whip or Batman's grappling hook. I thought of this as an innovative interpretation of ancient weaponry.
Whether it is lush green rice paddies or riverside communities, most of the settings in Raya fit into Southeast Asian geography. Like ice in Frozen, water is the central theme that runs through Raya. “Water, rain, and peace” are what paradise meant for Kumandra. The giant river flowing through Kumandra's map immediately reminded me of the Mekong. Southeast Asia, too, is a region of water - the subcontinent sits between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, with rivers flowing through the lands.
The first human to join Raya’s team was a child from Tail named Boun, who owns the boat restaurant called the Shrimporium. On his boat, Raya and her team traversed the five kingdoms of Kumandra. Their journey on the waters resembled Ha Long Bay in Vietnam.
I liked the shrimp theme a lot, for I come from a town called Cirebon, which literally means river (ci) of shrimps (rebon) in Sundanese. Traces of my hometown are also present in the credits, with clouds resembling Cirebon’s mega mendung motif.
Tail is a sparsely populated region, said to represent “pockets of villages” along the Mekong.
Talon is a familiar sight for anyone who has been to Thailand’s floating markets. The colourful lanterns at night looked just like Cibadak in Bandung, Indonesia.
The bamboo forests of Spine are said to be linked to Vietnam, and the snow-covered highlands allude to the mountain town of Sa Pa.
My friend said Fang resembled Singapore, and I thought it made a lot of sense. On the map it was a red dot on the tip of a peninsula, just like the Lion City in relation to Malaya. Fang is also portrayed as an insecure nation, not unlike Singapore in its early days of independence. The magnificent architecture is said to be inspired by Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and the Minangkabau people's rumah gadang.
It is amazing to see the extent to which the characters resembled the cast or vice-versa. Chief Benja looks exactly like an animated version of Daniel Dae Kim, so does Virana with Sandra Oh. Even Sisu the dragon convinced me that she was Awkwafina (or at least Goh Peik Lin from Crazy Rich Asians). It makes me wonder whether the characters were actually modelled after the cast, or if they created the characters first and then found people who look exactly like them.
I also adored the Ongis - half monkey, half catfish creatures that appeared together with conbaby Noi. They are cute yet very cunning, just like the monkeys that attacked me at Uluwatu, Bali.
In order to accurately represent Southeast Asia, Disney formed a Southeast Asia Story Trust, a collective of consultants led by Lao visual anthropologist Steve Arounsack “with areas of expertise ranging from music and choreography to architecture and martial arts.” The Studio members did fieldwork in Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore to learn about their cultures.
Some people criticized Raya for packing too much into a two-hour movie, and elements from different countries are jumbled up together. On the contrary, I think this is the best part of Raya. Southeast Asia was meant to be one before the concept of national borders were transplanted from Europe. Raya accounted for contiguity along cultures in Southeast Asia, presenting various elements together in a natural way. And since Raya is pure fantasy instead of a historical story, factual accuracy is of less importance (think Mulan living in a Tulou).
I appreciate how the crew took care not to make Raya explicitly associated with any single Southeast Asian culture. Take the Kumandran hand gesture, for example, which sort of resembles dhyana mudra. When paying respect to elders and the dragons, they formed a circle with their hand and bow or kneel. Had they just adopt the wai gesture, the whole movie would have been so obviously Thai. This is because that is the average person's understanding of Southeast Asia, even though you would find people doing the same gesture in other places like Yogyakarta.
Another noteworthy point is the way they portrayed dragon culture. The dragons in Raya, including Sisu, are said to be inspired by “Nāga from Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.” Not all dragons are Chinese, and it is commendable that Raya presented a different kind of dragon culture from Mulan’s Mushu.
Some people also lament that Raya cast is not Southeast Asian enough; most of them are actors from North America with Northeast Asian descent. However, this did not prevent the screenplay from presenting an authentic Southeast Asia. It may be that the pool of people for the Disney team to choose from is simply too small to begin with, and this structural issue is not something that can be solved within a movie.
One could say that they have made up for Southeast Asian representation by engaging Southeast Asian singers in the Raya music pieces, such as Via Vallen's Kita Bisa as well as Trust Again featuring artists from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. If Raya gets a live action remake like Aladdin and Mulan, then perhaps we could see a homegrown Southeast Asian on the big screens (I am rooting for Maudy Ayunda!).
“The world's broken. You can't trust anyone.” “Maybe it's broken because you don't trust anyone.”
Throughout the two hours the movie has been preaching trust and unity. This is very much relevant to the context of Southeast Asia. Kumandra was once a united civilization but split into five kingdoms; Southeast Asia was arbitrarily carved out into separate states and the division was further entrenched as nascent governments sought to set themselves apart from their neighbours. The Druun that feeds on human discord is a testament to the way evil forces thrive when the people are divided; Southeast Asia has to be united in face of external threats.
There are no villains within Kumandra; while we get tyrant rulers from time to time in Southeast Asia, the people are always innocent. Because of a long history of separation, a majority of Southeast Asians hold onto their own national identities without recognizing the threads that bring us together. There needs to be visionaries who could rise up and align national interests with that of the wider region. The movies exemplifies how important it is to have somebody take the first step - the world is broken when nobody is willing to.
At the end of the movie, everyone on Raya’s team came together: Boun from Tail, Noi and the Ongis from Talon, Tong from Spine, and finally Namaari from Fang. None of them were de facto leaders of their home regions, but together they saved the world: the solution was not an agreement between leaders; it was the trust between peoples. In other words, maybe, the trust and unity of a region is not defined by the governments of the respective nations, but the population at large.
One could also say that when the leadership is ineffective in forging regional unity, it is us the people who should rise to the challenge. Beyond the unity of governments, we should strive for a unity of peoples. This is part of the reason I started One Southeast Asian Civilization.
“Ba, welcome to Kumandra.”
Benja’s vision of one Kumandra is turned into reality at last.
There are still many more Southeast Asian cues that I have not been able to pick up or understand. Watching this movie, I was reminded of just how much I still do not know about this region. Perhaps a few years down the road, I would be able to re-watch Raya with a better ability to appreciate the nuances; perhaps by then there would have been more pieces one could compare Raya with. Having watched the movie for the first time, what I could say for now is this: I feel represented.