Rachel Martin of NPR speaks to Slashfilm’s Hoai-Tran Bui about Disney’s reckoning of Raya and the Last Dragon as a Southeast Asian film, but critics say it uses many East Asian actors.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The cartoon “Raya and the Last Dragon” received praise for celebrating Southeast Asian culture. It’s in theaters now and is streamed on Disney +. The main character Raya is introduced as Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON”)
KELLY MARIE TRAN: (as Raya) To restore peace we have to find the last dragon.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: However, some critics have urged Disney to cast only one actor of Southeast Asian descent in a prominent speaking role – Kelly Marie Tran, who speaks Raya. These roles went mainly to actors of East Asian origin. Hoai-Tran Bui is a critic at Slashfilm.
HOAI-TRAN BUI: Most of the reactions I’ve seen online have been praise and generally positive attitudes from Southeast Asian critics, although some have voiced the same criticisms that I have of the film’s melting pot approach, and more are with dissatisfied with the casting decisions. It’s mainly about treating Asians as monoliths, no matter what country they’re from. And there is a difference between East Asian and Southeast Asian countries.
MARTIN: We reached out to Disney specifically about the casting issue and they put us in touch with a co-writer on the film, Adele Lim. And we have a clip of her response. Let’s listen
ADELE LIM: Every time there is a prominent Asian film or we have Asian lead roles, a project has to take on the burden because there just isn’t enough of it. For “Raya” especially, we just feel so lucky that we have the actors that we have who have connected so deeply and so meaningfully to their roles.
MARTIN: So what do you think? It sounds like she’s setting the bar low so that if they overcome it, they can celebrate.
BUI: Yes, and that is a problem that is muddy even among the Asian American and Southeast Asian American communities. “Raya and the Last Dragon” gets as heavily billed as the first Southeast Asia-inspired Disney animated film. So it seems like a big missed opportunity not to cast the lead with Southeast Asian actors other than Kelly Marie Tran.
MARTIN: Can you compare that to the situation with white actors? I mean, English actors play Americans all the time, right? Scots play Russians. Australians play Israelis. Can you explain how it feels differently?
BUI: It has to do with the different experiences Southeast Asians may have had in the US compared to East Asians. There is the jungle Asians stereotype that many Southeast Asians have had to grapple with – the Vietnam War-type images; the idea that because they have darker skin, Southeast Asians are less than East Asians. Yet they do not have the same visibility as East Asians, but they suffer from similar prejudices.
MARTIN: If you put the casting aside, what did you do with the rest of the film?
BUI: I really enjoyed the film. You can see different parts of Vietnamese, Thai, Malaysian, and Laotian cultures spread throughout the film. These were really exciting and really wonderful to watch, even if I had my own drawbacks with the portrayal, mostly because at this point in time, if we are going to tell more Asian stories from the East Asian-Southeast Asian perspective, we don’t need those crumbs more.
MARTIN: Hoai-Tran Bui, film critic for slash film. Thank you very much.
BUI: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “GABAY”)
KZ TANDINGAN: (sings in Filipino)
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