With the USA reeling from a rash of attacks on Asian Americans – the ongoing pandemic prompting a rise in hate crimes – the celebrity cast of Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon hope their film can spread a little more love and tolerance.
Inspired by Southeast Asian culture, Raya and the Last Dragon is set in the fantasy world of Kumandra, featuring a voice cast of popular Asian actors including Awkwafina, Sandra Oh, Kelly Marie Tran, Gemma Chan, Benedict Wong and Daniel Dae Kim.
When STACK speaks with the cast and creative team, they express a collective hurt at the recent xenophobic violence – especially in San Francisco’s Bay Area, where a series of incidents have left several older Asian Americans badly injured and at least one dead.
“I don’t think any of us had any idea of how the world would become, especially when it comes to the injustices to the Asian American community right now,” Raya’s co-writer, Qui Nguyen, tells us.
“There’s been times over the last 365 days where there’s been a lot of negative imagery and words said about Asians, so it’s hard not to appreciate that this movie is coming out and providing a counterpoint in telling a positive story celebrating Asian American lives and Asian American people.
“I think with any group that is underrepresented – when you’re only seeing stories where you’re represented as the bad guy or a thug or whatever – it starts to paint a very negative picture of you for those who don’t ever get to know you. We should acknowledge that this world is all of us, not just any one of us, because without that I don’t know how we get better. I’m just appreciative that this movie is coming out when it is,” he said.
Echoing his sentiments, Sandra Oh adds, “I’m extremely moved by the theme and the ending of the story. The film is about trust and, I myself, am struggling with that. Art is here to pose questions and to potentially suggest possibility, and I think we start with the questions: Who do I trust? How am I not trusting? Can I trust that other side when it seems to be very proof positive that this is what has been done to me?
“But the theme of the story is that we cannot go on as a society and the world cannot continue without this open-heartedness and the truth that Raya learns – and Namaari ultimately learns – that you just need to keep breaking your heart again. You have to be willing to have your heart broken again and again and again, just to keep it open. Because I think that we know, hate is not finished by hate, it is only won over by love.
“So, we have to, individually and then hopefully societally, move towards that way because all of us are in the same boat. 2020 is a beautiful opportunity in all its destructiveness and all its change, if one can see it as an opportunity that somehow it has also broken all of our hearts open, so what can we do with that?” asks the Killing Eve actress, who voices Virana in the film.
Co-director Carlos Lopez Estrada hopes Raya and the Last Dragon can pose a timely message: “We were all very aware that this film was meant to be timeless, but it also turned out to be unbelievably timely. I think it emboldened us to continue forward because we felt like we had something to say. If this film can teach just one person to be brave enough to trust somebody, then we feel like we’ve done what we set out to do.”
Adding to the chorus, co-director Don Hall says, “You cannot undervalue the fact that this is a Disney movie and those who will be watching this is largely families; parents with their children seeing this kind of representation and understanding what is possible.”
Crazy Rich Asians star Gemma Chan, who provides the voice of Namaari, is especially hopefully that children can lead the way in creating a more harmonious world.
“When we’re young, we don’t inherently hate each other; it’s something that is learned; something that comes through from either a parental or family influence or your particular tribe. Those things are learned. Kids get on and I think that’s something great to take from the movie, that those things can be learned but they can be unlearned as well.”
Starring as the film’s eponymous Raya, Kelly Marie Tran sees the film as a force for change. “There’s a moment for me, specifically with Raya when, towards the end of the movie, she gets to feel justifiably and absolutely unapologetically angry. For me, seeing a young woman in a movie like this get to express that righteous anger feels so real,” says the actress best known for her role as Rose Tico in Star Wars: Episodes VIII and IX.
“Because I think all of us are seeing these attacks happening over and over consistently, and you do get to that place sometimes where you feel, ‘Oh this is a very broken world’, and I’m feeling a lot of things right now. Recognising that moment felt so grounded in reality, because you can’t just say ‘trust’ and ‘yay it’s going to be fine’. Acknowledging that there’s a lot of pain that happens there, the only way to really get through it is to look for the hope in your community,” she offers.
Benedict Wong, best known for his roles in Doctor Strange and The Martian, adds, “The themes about trust are really powerful. This is it – we need this [film] to unite. Our kids, when they look at each other, they see through colour, and things need to be unlearned, especially in America where it ripples all over the world. We are living through the remnants of this kind of hate, and it’s very timely that this beautiful film shows us that love can really lead the way.”
• Raya and the Last Dragon is in cinemas on March 4