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Press Conference: ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Team Explores Southeast Asian Representation And What They Hoped To Highlight

Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon is coming out soon, and Geeks of Color is thrilled to learn more before the movie is available.

At the press conference I attended earlier this month, I had the chance to learn about the creative team’s process and what sort of research they had undergone in preparation for this movie. Like Disney had done with Moana, a team was assembled specifically with the purpose of conducting research to better understand and represent Southeast Asian culture. Named the “Southeast Asia Story Trust,” Don Hall (director), Carlos Lopez Estrada (director), Osnat Shurer (producer), Qui Nguyen (writer) and Adele Lim (writer) sat down and gave us further insight.

Osnat Shurer shared how members for the Southeast Asia Story Trust were selected.

Shurer: We met many people as we were preparing for the research trips and met some people on the research trips and found commonalities with many people. For example, Doctor Hall, who is our textile expert that we met through the Pacific Asia Museum when we needed to dig into textiles.  We had linguists who worked with us.  Every name that we put in the movie went through an Indonesian linguist from UCLA who speaks many languages of the region. […] The script is very deeply a script written by the writers you see here in collaboration with the directors and with our chief creative officer, Jennifer Lee, and our story trust. [The] cultural in-conversation was going on during the writing of the script and continued to go on throughout the creation of the film, and continues to this day.

Raya and the Last Dragon - Still
(Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen described examples of Southeast Asian influences in the movie.

Lim: I don’t think there were specific characters within Southeast Asian mythology.  But in Southeast Asia, there’s a great tradition of female leaders, military leaders and warriors. And leaders of their realms. And also, the stories of Nagas and dragons, particularly with water.  In Malaysia, we have the warrior Tun Fatimah, and we have stories of Naga Tasik Chini, which is the dragon of Chini Lake.  So it’s sort of within a lot of cultures in Southeast Asia.  And so we knew it was one of those threads that would really resonate within the film.

Nguyen: In Vietnamese culture, there’s this really famous story of the Trung sisters. They’re like these famous Vietnamese warriors that I definitely thought of.  Without a doubt, I think Adele and I drew inspirations for families from our parents.  Specifically for me, from my mom.  I know what she had to go through when she came to this country.  And just to have that kind of fighting spirit.  And also, just the kind of energy that our people have that you don’t always get to display on screen. It was important for us to show the real spirit of Southeast Asia out there.

(Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

The panel then shared what resonated in the story and the research with each of them.

Shurer: [The] most important takeaway from these amazing cultures that we got a chance to interact with was the togetherness.  The kind of coming together around food, very often, which is very cool. The coming together and the willingness, and the sense of “we.”  The sense of if we come together, we can achieve a lot. That was super, super important.

Lim: It’s an easy term to say, but I feel like with a lot of cultures in Southeast Asia, it’s really feeling that someone else’s child is your child.  That you are responsible for the people in your community as if they are your own family. When that’s broken, it really breaks you individually as a person.  And we really wanted to feel that within the movie.

Nguyen: [The] thing that I really wanted, being a lifelong martial artist, was basically that I wanted to make sure that our martial arts were correct.  So often when you see a big action movie that is depicted with people who look like me and Adele, the martial arts can be just any combination of anything. Really, they could be made-up martial arts.  But for this, it was very important that the moves that Namaari, Benja and Raya used were things that were based and rooted in Southeast Asian martial arts. Specifically, Pencak silat, Arnis and Muay Thai.

(Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

Raya and the Last Dragon arrives in theaters and on Disney+ (with premier access) on March 5th!

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