By Guest Contributor: Mai Nguyen Do
Note: This essay contains mild spoilers for the film ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’.
Representation isn’t just about descriptive characteristics. It’s about reflecting the complexities of lived experiences, including the dynamic, evolving nature of culture. There are aspects of Southeast Asian culture woven throughout Raya and the Last Dragon in textiles, food, spiritual practice, and so on.
Raya’s strength, however, is in its assertion of authenticity rather than its conformity to concepts of authenticity. Instead of attempting to conform to what are typically Western-centric or white-centric notions of what makes presentations of our cultures authentic, Raya affirmatively respects various aspects of our cultures while also building on them to create an immersive, imaginative experience that is substantively – not just descriptively – representational. From the dynamic, complex characters to small details like the fruit on a table, Raya is an incredible work that meaningfully engages with concepts of culture, conflict, representation, and justice. It’s a must-watch for everyone.
To start with, Raya, the Southeast Asian heroine from the fantasy land of Kumandra, speaks to people of all ages and backgrounds. Raya is provided with incredible depth: her story isn’t just about her adventure, but also about her learning to process her immense grief, develop relationships with others, and heal from both personal and political conflict. These are powerful lessons, especially for these times.
Raya’s personal journey towards healing for both herself and those around her may particularly resonate for those of us who most explicitly see ourselves in her as Southeast Asian people who have lost family to conflict or disaster. However, the struggle of carrying loss, grief, anger, and betrayal for years remains nearly universal. It’s refreshing to see a “family film” character be free to express and process these emotions on screen, and these overt displays of sorrow only amplify the meaning of the adventure we’re brought along to witness throughout Raya. In addition, making Raya’s grief central, rather than peripheral, to her character makes the film not just an emotional movie, but also a great teaching tool to help children (one of the film’s main target demographics) understand grief, its pains, and its complexities.
Some of Raya’s best moments are rooted in brief, yet powerful, gestures clearly inspired by Southeast Asian cultures. For example, Raya’s father attempts to teach her to center cooperation rather than conflict through food. The creation of food requires multiple components coming together; the distribution of food requires dividing and sharing in what’s been created. If you’ve ever been in the kitchen and been impatient to call everyone to, “Come eat!”, Raya’s first time inviting a large group of people to eat might invoke a swell of pride. Later, when Namaari, a young warrior from a neighboring nation-state, passes through a grove of dragon statues, she turns around to quickly pay her respects to the dragons. She does so by doing what I, as a person raised in a Vietnamese family, would most closely associate with the action of lạy – bowing your head and lifting up your clasped hands in prayer or reverence to something – which is usually done in front of an ancestral altar. There are other equivalents and similar expressions, too, in various Southeast Asian cultures, which are often used as a part of greeting.
What makes Raya so powerful – as a political statement, as a creative work, as an adventure story – is its persistent insistence on turning away from punitive retribution to instead focus on shared healing. The film opens with Raya’s father lightly pushing her to let go of her assumptions about people from the other areas of Kumandra, to let go of her inclination to want to engage in violence in response to the longstanding, underlying conflicts between the factions. The film ends with Raya fully investing her trust to try and heal the bitter animosity between herself and Naamari in addition to the ongoing conflict surrounding their broken relationship. It’s a wonderful rebuke of typical adventure narratives that focus on punishment, and it’s also very well-executed with both effective storytelling and vivid world-building.
By helping to pave the way forward for further elevating content that highlights Southeast Asian cultures, Raya also reminds us of some of the challenges that remain ahead for telling stories about non-white peoples and communities, both real and imagined. As demonstrated by films like Black Panther, there remains a tendency to render our politics as tribal. Even in works that aren’t films, like video games, this particular angle remains persistent; in World of Warcraft, the areas and peoples most analogous to non-white humans in real life suffer the same problem, while others are developed with the complexities and infrastructure – even in rural areas. To be clear, it still wouldn’t be constructive to attempt to illustrate our cultures or peoples in the same conflict-centered, guns-and-steel way that others approach historically-inspired work about European cultures and peoples. Raya also does subvert this framework somewhat by breaking the one-faction-conquers-the-rest formula. Yet, its persistence demonstrates the continued need for works like Raya that allows for further exploration and experimentation.
Raya’s story, characters, and environments didn’t need to be embedded in some sort of Lord of the Rings-style saga to accomplish incredible, epic storytelling and world-building. That ability to create a compelling adventure narrative without relying heavily on violent conflict or empire-building is incredibly valuable when telling stories based on peoples that have historically faced war and plunder. It’s what makes me excited for what works like Raya offer in laying the groundwork for us to explore the politics of nation-building and borders – whether rebuking, embracing, or otherwise experimenting with these concepts – with the same resources and energy that European feudalism, for example, gets to be explored. Perhaps that’s where a Raya sequel could venture: to explore what it means to rebuild after disaster with shared resources, cooperation, and a collective effort towards constructing better futures.
I’m excited to see how Southeast Asian creatives build off Raya to tell more stories and explore more concepts on our own terms. Plus, grander implications aside, Raya is overall a wonderful, vivid story to share with your loved ones.
Mai Nguyen Do is a Vietnamese American poet and researcher from Santa Clarita, California. Writing under her Vietnamese name of Đỗ Nguyên Mai, she is the author of Ghosts Still Walking (Platypus Press) and Battlefield Blooming (Sahtu Press). She studies Asian American politics as a PhD student in Political Science at the University of California, Riverside.
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