Disney's Raya And The Last Dragon: Southeast Asian And Filipino Cultural References
Coming to Disney Plus and selected global theatres this March 2021 is Disney's 13th princess movie that has been much anticipated by fans, cinephiles, and history buffs alike. Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) follows the journey of a lone warrior named Raya who tracks down the last living dragon to save the world from the evil forces that had decimated most of the dragons centuries ago.
American actress of Vietnamese descent Kelly Marie Tran (The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker) gives voice to the new Disney princess, together with Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell) who was cast as Sisu, the mythical last dragon in the world of Kumandra. The film is written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada and produced by Osnat Shurer and Peter del Vecho.
Being the first Disney princess film to make use of elements from this corner of the globe, we took a closer look at the references that were shown in the previous trailers released by Disney.
First off, the name. Raya may not be a common name for girls from Southeast Asia but it has deep Indo-Malay roots. In Indonesia and Malaysia, raya pertains to grandness or greatness. We often hear it also following the word hari which then altogether means "a great feast" or "celebration". This may also be loosely linked to the Sanskrit word rajan and its Hindi counterpart rajah, titles given to princes and kings.
This title was commonly used across the ancient Majapahit empire, which stretched from Sumatra to New Guinea. Today, it consists present-day Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, southern Thailand, East Timor, Brunei, and southwestern Philippines. It was one of the last major Hindu empires and like the fantasy world of Kumandra.
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The first teaser trailer left us in awe after seeing arnis sticks being used as the heroine's primary weapon. The arnis-kali-eskrima martial arts system is widely practised in Southeast Asia and dates back to pre-Hispanic Philippines. However, the movements in arnis were systematised centuries later in the Philippines to how we know it today. Truly, it is befitting to be the Philippine national sport.
In the trailer and poster, we also saw kris (or keris in the Indonesian language), a type of double-edged sword with a distinctive wavy blade that is used in Sulu and Maguindanao by Moro warriors. Of course, the salakot Raya is wearing is an eye-catcher and indicative of the Southeast Asian influences of the film. The word "salakot" has its Spanish origins (salacot) as Antonio Pigafetta, the chronicler of the expedition of Ferdinand Magellan, wrote about it when he saw "a queen who wore a large hat of palm leaves in the manner of a parasol, with a crown about it of the same leaves like the tiara of the pope; and she never goes any place without such one". We also see iterations of this native headgear in other parts of Asia like Vietnam, Bhutan, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and even Japan.
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But perhaps the most interesting find in the trailer (and in the film, in general) is the reference to the bakunawa, the sea-serpent dragon in Filipino myths. In Visayan mythology, the god of death Sidapa who resides under a tall tree in Mt. Madjaas in Panay island saw the seven moons dancing in the sky. He fell in love with them, particularly the moon god Bulan who descended from the heavens. One night, a giant dragon who guards the land of the dead saw the beauty of the moons in the sky. The bakunawa rose from the sea to swallow the moons. Luckily, Sidapa snatched Bulan before the bakunawa could eat him. To this day, locals would see the moon rise from the top of Mt. Madjaas.
Well, that's a story far from the Disney film's Sisu but seeing her with the same physical features like an elongated and slender body with a horn at her forehead and manifesting the same power over water, she is no doubt a bakunawa.
Other small details that we found is the iconic hilt design of the sword that is prevalent in the region, the warrior mask similar to that used in khon performances in Thailand, and the name of Raya's pill bug-slash-armadillo sidekick that reminds us of Thailand's rickshaw.
In the official trailer, we find more details about Kumandra as we see Raya enter the big city. We see the city built on a body of water and find a floating market where vendors sell their goods in small boats. This we also find today in many parts of Southeast Asia like the Cai Rang Floating Market in Mekong Delta, the Inle Lake Floating Market in Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar, the Amphawa Floating Market in Bangkok, Thailand, and Bakun Floating Market in Sarawak, Borneo, to name a few. Also, ancient Manila by the Pasig River used to be an economic centre like this even up to the American Colonial Period. We also see paper lanterns that is very distinctive of our region, particularly in the Philippines where houses are adorned by parols during the Christmas season.
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The houses in the city appear to have similarities to Thai design and architecture, most notably the sharp triangular roofs, while the materials used like weaved mats of nipa for the walls and flooring are identical in pattern to that of the Filipino bahay kubo. We also saw fight scenes in key locations that remind us of Bangkok's grand palaces and Cordillera's dap-ay, which is an amphitheatre-like gathering place used for rituals that are made of stones and with a bonfire at the centre.
Other details that one might have missed are tropical fruits like longan, bamboo citadel walls, and rice terraces that are not only the Philippines' pride but also of other neighbouring countries.
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Watching the international trailer over and over again made me realise something I missed in the previous trailers. Sleeping Beauty's castle that used to be at the opening billboard is not there! Rather, we see a lingling-o shaped mountain with a small palace on top of it. And then, we find Raya riding the sidekick Tuk Tuk towards there as quickly as they could. The lingling-o shape is what we commonly find in pendants and ornaments in Vietnam and Ifugao, Philippines. It's double-headed with a gap in the centre. The earliest discoveries of this were made of jade or gold but later iterations were of metal and wood. It symbolises virility or fertility among northern Philippine tribes as it resembles a mother's womb.
Although the trailer gave us more scenes about the film, we have already seen many Filipino references from the previous trailers. Like the carabao-led karitela, low-table hapag kainan where diners sit on the floor and eat, buntings that we find in fiestas, solihiya latticework, bilao (large woven tray for removing rice chaff), and tattoo-making tools like charcoal ink and plant thorns used by a mambabatok.
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But I guess the most significant reference is the curse of being turned into stone. This may be a far stretch as the film showed the curse being given by evil forces in the form of a luminescent purple smoke. But for us, Filipinos, we are quite familiar with the corrido about the mythical Adarna bird. Legend has it that a mythical bird that changes the colour of her feathers after singing lives on a tree called Piedras Platas in Mt. Tabor and whoever listens to her enchanting voice might fall into sleep and be turned into stone when shat at. However, in the story, only those with wicked intentions got turned into stone—contrary to the Disney film's plot.
Nevertheless, the film is a must-see, especially because we, Southeast Asians, are being represented culturally and magically this way. As haraya or hiraya means "dream" or "heart's desire" for us Filipinos, the new Disney princess that takes pride in our heritage is a dream come true.
What's more about the project is that for the first time, the Disney theme song of the film gets to be translated into Filipino with KZ Tandingan singing it. That's a first!
Additional input from Eliseo Art Arambulo Silva. Filipino references in trailers of Raya and the Last Dragon. Facebook, 10 February 2021. Accessed 11 February 2021.