Part of the pleasure of watching “Raya and the Last Dragon,” which is by no means a terrible movie, is a thrill similar to the one many Asian Americans like myself felt when we watched “Crazy Rich Asians” a few short years ago: it’s just so great to see Asian faces on the screen in a legitimate Hollywood blockbuster. What’s more, it’s evident that the animators and character designers at Disney went through considerable pains to represent many different kinds of Asian faces. There are many facial designs in this movie that are so familiar and true to the diversity of Asian bone structure—many kinds of faces that I recognized from family, friends and a lifetime of exposure to Asian people that I never expected to see rendered by Disney animators at all—that it was a wonder to behold.
And yet, as with “Crazy Rich Asians” (which was a willfully dunderheaded attempt to subvert Asian stereotypes by creating new ones) the representational virtues of “Raya” ultimately feel somewhat hollow. That’s because in actuality the world of the movie is not very true to Asia at all. The movie is ostensibly about Southeast Asian culture but instead of setting it in a historical version of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines or other, y’know, real places, Disney went another way. They ignored the rich, vibrant histories and mythologies of those lands and chose instead to invent a wholly new, fully fabricated kingdom, populated by new myths and legends that just happen to be owned and copyrighted by Mickey Mouse. Convenient, right? What results is a bloodless, corporatized melange of different ideas, religions, customs, ethnicities and even cuisines.
What’s really at stake here is not just the opportunity to see Asians on the big screen, but also to understand—to understand at least one aspect—of a diversity of cultures that Hollywood has historically lumped together as a generic “other.” It can’t be ignored that this movie’s release last month came in the midst of a rising tide of anti-Asian hatred in America. In fact, “Raya” debuted just eleven days before the Atlanta spa shootings took place on 16 March, which counted six Asian women among its eight deaths. It would be absurd to argue a causal relationship here, but I can’t help but think that “Raya” is symptomatic of the way Asians are understood in America. We all know the common racist refrain that all Asians look alike, but there’s also a common racist assumption that Asian ethnicities, cultures, countries and even regions are interchangeable. Even the majority of the reporting on the Atlanta spa shootings failed to identify the specific ethnicities of the gunman’s victims beyond simply citing them as “Asian” (four were of Korean descent, and two were of Chinese descent).
It probably seems unfair to expect “Raya,” as a kids movie, to resolve this longstanding cultural myopia. But what’s so frustrating about this film is that, while it may have been well intentioned, it’s a whiff on one of the few swings that Asians, to say nothing of Southeast Asians, get at the big screen. Unlike say, Victorian England, the many cultures of Asia do not have both a tremendous backlog of shows and movies behind us as well as an infinite roadmap of future entertainment projects ahead of us that will all tell the story of people who look like us, over and over again, ad nauseam. So when we get one like “Raya,” which in theory could have been a chance for children everywhere—not just Asian, but children of all ethnicities—to learn something actually tangible about other cultures that Americans, let’s face it, know very little about, that feels like malpractice.
An even less charitable part of me views this as a willful refusal on the part of the filmmakers, or the company behind them, to actually engage with the reality of non-Western cultures. In attempting to pay homage to the region only through the constraints of what the corporation can tolerate, “Raya” is really a kind of abnegation of all Asian cultures because it suggests that they’re all the same, interchangeable and indistinguishable from one another. Really, the movie is basically a P.F. Chang’s-style whitewashing of a vast region of the globe. It’s the cinematic equivalent of asking why you’d want to go to a “real” ethnic restaurant on the other side of town when instead you could go to a joint at your local mall, where you can get a half dozen Asian cultures thrown in a wok, stir fried together and presented in Americanese?
You could say that “Raya and the Last Dragon” exploits the low expectations that the American public has for Asian representation, but there was another movie that I watched last month that absolutely killed it in the low expectations game: “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.” This bizarrely elaborate (four hours long, US$70 million dollars just for reshoots and additional post-production) redo of a 2017 box office and critical flop is an incremental improvement over the original, it’s true. But that’s only if you’ve subjected yourself to the horrors of that original as well its franchise predecessors, and really to the entire past decade of meaninglessly convoluted super-hero nonsense at the cinema as well, which has lowered all of our expectations drastically. “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” posits: if you fail often and hard enough, and then you get tens of millions of dollars and the backing of a mob of entitled fan boys behind you, can you make something that’s only modestly redeeming in the smallest possible way, and then consider that a success? Apparently the answer, for some people, is yes.
Here’s the full list of all twenty-seven movies I watched last month.
This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched in February, in January, and in 2020, 2019, in 2018, in 2017, and in 2016. Finally, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on letterboxd.com—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.