It’s taken almost a century, but Disney’s first South-East Asian Heroine debuted on Thursday.
Raya is the so-called character of Raya and The Last Dragon. The movie is about her reuniting her people by travelling around the region to save the world.
However, aside from carrying the weight of humanity on her shoulders, she’s got another load to bear. South East Asia is a home to 673 million in its 11 countries.
If not hundreds of different cultures in the region, there are dozens which beg only one question. That is what is a South-East Asian identity, and can Disney’s latest heroine embody it?
Silat and salakots
The movie is set in Kumandra, a fantasy land and a home to five tribes. Each of these tribe has its own distinct culture inspired by different places in South East Asia.
Director Don Hall says that filmmaking in the region was inspired by a trip the filmmaking crew took there.
The film does not take place in today’s timeline. But instead imagines what the places would have looked like thousands of years ago.
Parts of South East Asia are peppered in the film. Moreover, Raya wears a hat called Salakot, which is a traditional headgear in the Philippines.
Her loyal sidekick and also the mode of transportation is named Tuk Tuk. Tuk Tuk is a cheeky reference to a rickshaw that is a standard transport mode there.
Additionally, her fighting technique is inspired by Silat. Silat in Malaysia and Indonesia is a traditionally practised form of martial arts.
Producer Osnat Shurer said they sought to look at what are the underlying ideas that are given. As the most important one for us was the sense of community and working unitedly.
Some online lament that the movie is picking bits from different cultures and throwing them together into one film. But Malaysian born Adele Lim, the co-scriptwriter of the movie, says it goes deeper.
Prof Lim also marks out that it is biased to put the burden of perfectly depicting an entire region in one film.
It is not perfect in terms of representations. But it’s one step closer, said a Twitter user.