Raya and the Last Dragon and cultural specificity in Hollywood

Friday - 05/03/2021 10:41
Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina as Raya and Sisu. © 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.Source:Supplied
Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina as Raya and Sisu. © 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.Source:Supplied
Disney’s latest animated feature has run straight into a discourse that’s been raging in Hollywood for years.

“All I heard was ‘strong Asian female who kicks arse, and there’s a dragon’ and I said, ‘done, I am in!’,” writer Adele Lim excitedly recalled to news.com.au.

Lim had heard her first pitch for Disney’s new animated feature Raya and the Last Dragon and she didn’t need to hear any more.

Releasing into cinemas and on streaming (at premium rental price) this week, Raya and the Last Dragon tells the fantasy story of a woman warrior who seeks out the last dragon to try and save humanity from vicious monsters turning people into stone.

With the voice talents of Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim and Sandra Oh, it’s being positioned as the next step in terms of screen representation. The glossy story is set in a fictional land called Kumandra, a fictional pan-South East Asian culture that draws inspiration from a region that spans Myanmar to Indonesia.

Even before its release, the film has already copped a smattering of criticism aimed at its approach to represent a whole region rather than one country. And its casting of many actors with East Asian backgrounds, including Chan, Kim and Awkwafina, has also become a point of contention.

This part of the discourse around Raya speaks to audiences’ appetite to see cultural specificity on the screen.
 

Raya and the Last Dragon is being positioned as the next step in Hollywood representation of diverse cultures. Picture: Disney
Raya and the Last Dragon is being positioned as the next step in Hollywood representation of diverse cultures.
Picture: DisneySource:Supplied

 

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It’s a conversation the Disney team was always going to have to address as audiences demand authentic representations on screen, even in animations.

Lim explained that Kumandra was not inspired by a specific South East Asian myth.

“But the specificity in terms of what was important in many cultures in South East Asia is that feeling of community,” she said.

“Laos is very different from Malaysia, which is very different from Indonesia, but within all those cultures is this sense of people pulling together. That our happiness and not just survival, but our joy, really is in the people around us.”

Lim, who was born in and grew up in Malaysia, said that in her 20 years as a writer in Hollywood, she had “rarely been able to tell a story inspired by my own culture or [write] for a lead that looked at all like me”.

With credits including XenaPrivate Practice and Reign, Lim is perhaps best known as the co-screenwriter of Crazy Rich Asians, the 2018 American rom-com with the first all-Asian descent cast in a quarter of a century.

Lim and co-screenwriter Qui Nguyen number among many others in the Raya team with Asian heritage, many of them specifically South East Asian, including head of story Fawn Veerasunthorn, who brought to the story their personal experiences and memories.
 

Malaysian-born Adele Lim is one of the screenwriters on the film. Picture: Ricky Middlesworth/Disney
Malaysian-born Adele Lim is one of the screenwriters on the film.
Picture: Ricky Middlesworth/DisneySource:Supplied

 

RELATED: Raya and the Last Dragon review

“There were a tremendous number of people – myself, Qui, Fawn and the story artists and the people within Disney – who have roots in South East Asia or grew up there.

“[We were able to bring] tiny everyday details, not just ancient mythology, but how we grew up, how we greet our parents, how the food is on the table, how we share a meal, the little food coverings we put on it because it shows that your grandma made you lunch and she’s protecting it from flies. There were little bits like that.

“I don’t think I really worried about the level of detail because I knew that I wanted to tell a story that even though it’s fantasy, it was authentic to my experience and I know that a lot of our creators also thought that way.

“For a lot of us, this was a love letter, even though Kumandra is fictional and an invented fantasy world. We put our hearts and souls into this.”

Lim pointed to how that collaboration is reflected in the story’s themes on screen as well – that Raya’s tale in Western storytelling would’ve been about one hero who takes on the world on her own.

Raya started off that way, but really when you look at the whole story, it’s not about that, it’s about the collective. Even though she is a warrior, there’s something more that leads to the resolution of the story.”
 

Dragon Sisu in her human form. Picture: Disney
Dragon Sisu in her human form. Picture: DisneySource:Supplied

 

Lim was brought on to Raya by producer Osnat Shurer, who had previously worked at Pixar and had most recently produced Moana, a film that went through a cultural consulting process of its own.

Shurer, too, emphasised the collaboration that shaped Raya, a process she differentiated from “made by committee” – something that could be levelled at a film on which Lim and Nguyen share a “story by” credit with six other people.

“We’re all in service to the film and to the story, so even as we give each other notes, put up screenings and bring in other directors,” Shurer said.

“I used to work at Pixar, and we worked on a similar philosophy which is that this is the most collaborative business in the world. We teach each other how to give notes. Tell me what you bumped on so that we can do it the way the character needs the resolution to be.

“Eventually, even if one or 50 of us are serving the vision of this film, by that point the film is telling you what it wants. And it’s up to us to really listen to the characters.

“What you get is this artistry from all these different departments, which just adds to it, and next time you see it, you’re even more blown away. Now there are effects, there’s lighting and they were all thinking about the story too.”
 

Daniel Dae Kim voices Raya’s father. Picture: Disney
Daniel Dae Kim voices Raya’s father. Picture: DisneySource:Supplied

 

One person who really added to the character of Raya, according to Lim, was Tran. Best known for her roles in Star Wars movies The Last Jedi and Rise of Skywalker, Tran was born in California to Vietnamese immigrant parents.

Lim credited Tran, a fellow South East Asian woman, with infusing Raya with her essence.

“We’re very proud of where we come from, but we don’t often see ourselves on the big screen,” Lim added. “Being able to partner with Kelly Marie to really bring Raya to life and seeing the emotion that she brought to it.

“We like to talk writing Raya and designing Raya but really it was with Kelly Marie in the sound studio where she came to life and she had a soul.”

Raya and the Last Dragon is in cinemas now and available for premium rental ($34.99) on Disney+ from March 5 at 7pm AEDT

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