Raya and the Last Dragon, directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, marks the House of Mouse’s first foray into Southeast Asian cultures and traditions. An action-packed animated comedy-adventure filled with breathtaking visuals and a hopeful message at the heart of its story, the movie centers on the titular Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) as she embarks on a quest to save her land. Kumandra’s under threat from eternal doom after a mysterious plague known as the Druun turns everyone into stone and disunites the nation into five factions: Heart, Talon, Fang, Spine and Tail. Once peaceful and prosperous, with mythical dragons protecting the land, Kumandra is now in a state of disarray. People betray one another and no one, including Raya herself, has the guts to trust each other anymore. It’s a mess of a nation, and it’s now up to Raya to find a way to heal Kumandra once again.
While the main plot sounds a little too familiar, and the film’s central message of the nature of trust and the importance of unity is not exactly original, writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim manage to give a fresh spin by smoothly incorporating Southeast Asian cultures into the movie. From the architecture—which is influenced by the design of Indonesian Rumah Gadang and Cambodian Angkor Wat—to the costumes and even down to the music, which is heavily inspired by the sound of the gamelan, Raya and the Last Dragon offers plenty of SEA references in small details. But one part of SEA cultures and traditions that gives the movie more depth and meaning lies in the way it portrays the role of food as a symbol of unity.
We catch this early in the movie when the Chief of Heart—the nation which keeps the dragon gem, protecting Kumandra from the Druun—Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), who is also Raya’s father, plans to reunite the five factions over a meal. He assumes that if he can get them all to talk about their issues over food—a very Southeast Asian thing to do—he can bring Kumandra together once again. He’s prepared a tom yum made from the delicacies from all the five factions: Shrimp paste from Tail, lemongrass from Talon, bamboo shoots from Spine, chili from Fang and palm sugar from Heart. The tom yum that Benja’s prepared represents the flavorful beauty that might happen if the five unite as a nation once again. If simple ingredients from each of the factions can create a delicious meal, then the five lands trusting each other and working together can create an equally harmonious life in Kumandra. But unfortunately, before they can even enjoy the meal, a betrayal undermines it.
Princess Namaari (Gemma Chan) of Fang blindsides Raya after she tries to show her where Heart keeps the dragon gem, and in the process, breaks the gem into five separate pieces. The Druun return and turn almost everyone into stone—including Chief Benja. Grieving and feeling guilty, Raya sets out to retrieve the pieces of the dragon gem and find the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), to help her put Kumandra right again. All that accompanies her is her beloved and faithful pet Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk) and a handful of terrible jackfruit jerky for the road. She would rather do everything herself and eat her rubbery jerky than have a meal that other people serve her. The movie makes it clear from the get-go that Raya is having a hard time trusting anyone, and after what she’s gone through, it’s easy to understand why she is the way she is.
The jokey jackfruit jerky, in a way, symbolizes Raya’s distrust of other people. Yes, it’s easy to make and portable to boot. But the jerky is more of a survival matter than it is a real meal that could or is meant to be shared. It’s lukewarm, it’s dry, it’s tasteless—just like a lack of trust. If the only meal Raya brings along is unappetizing, then she doesn’t have to share it with other people, which keeps her distanced from them. And unlike the bowl of her father’s warm and inviting tom yum, which owes its complex taste to a diversity of ingredients originated from each faction, the jerky is just made from one thing: Jackfruit.
When Raya finally meets Sisu, however, her worldview is upended. Sisu, in a lot of ways, is like Raya’s father. She sees good in people and wants to trust them, while Raya, on the other hand, thinks that there’s no point in trusting other people in a broken world. In one of the most delightful scenes in the movie, the role of food as a catalyst of unity comes to fruition once again. After escaping Namaari and her people, Raya and Sisu (now in a human form) encounter Boun (Izaac Wong), a 10-year-old entrepreneur who owns the “Shrimporium,” a boat restaurant of the Tail Land. When he serves Raya and Sisu two bowls of delicious-looking congee—a warm and thick savory rice porridge served with shrimp, chopped spring onions and crispy fried onions—Raya refuses to eat it. “We don’t know him, it could be poison,” Raya whispers to Sisu. She would rather eat her horrible jerky, despite Boun’s pleas of innocence.
Sisu, however, devours the congee and shows Raya that a good meal is just, well, a good meal. And after a while, after hearing Boun’s story and finding out that he’s just like her—a kid trying to reunite with his family-—Raya warms up to him. She even uses his meal to gain new allies in a con-pulling baby (Thalia Tran) and her three Ongis (monkey/catfish critters) in Talon. In this sense, Raya and the Last Dragon demonstrates how sharing a meal can initiate a conversation, which allows us to understand the stories of the people with whom we share a meal.
In Southeast Asia, the role of food is integral, even beyond what it symbolizes in the movie. It’s a reflection of history and culture. It’s an important element of the economy, too: Rice—the staple food for most countries in Southeast Asia—represents privileges, which Raya and the Last Dragon also makes clear. Early in the movie, when Raya tries to make friends with Namaari, she offers her rice, which makes the Fang princess somewhat emotional. She admits to Raya that she and the Fang people haven’t had rice in a long time, while Heart always seems prosperous. In countries where rice is the number one necessary food—but not everyone can have easy access to it due to some limitations, economic or otherwise—this brief moment in the movie rings very true. It helps motivate Namaari’s sense of envy, her protectiveness of her people and her people only. Raya and the Last Dragon may not delve into it deeply, and understandably so, as the main story of the movie is not about that issue, but it doesn’t need to. By incorporating some small details and a Southeast Asian context into the story, the movie does a solid job of portraying cultures and traditions, even issues, that not many mainstream Hollywood movies have dared to discuss.
While the issue above and the land of Kumandra—as well as the appearances of longan, mangosteen, durian, rice and some other SEA delicacies—make Raya and the Last Dragon uniquely Southeast Asian, the way it explores the roles of food as a symbol of unity should resonate universally. In all cultures, food holds an important role. It’s a thread that unites all. The term “breaking bread” comes to mind. Sitting at a dinner table while eating food together allows us to be vulnerable. When we’re vulnerable, we become more open, which leads us to be more understanding—just like the film illustrates. Relationships blossom over a shared meal.
But the fact that the heroine of the film is named “Raya” emphasizes this notion even more and enhances the film’s specificity. In Bahasa Indonesia and Melayu, “Raya” is a term that’s mostly associated with celebrations—of Eid Al Fitr, of Eid Al Adha, even of Christmas. While “Raya” does not generally mean celebration (in the Bahasa Indonesia dictionary, “raya” actually means great, big, large), we Indonesian and Malaysian often use it to describe the three special days mentioned above. Whatever the holiday is between the three, we always refer to them as “Hari Raya”—or in English, “Raya’s Day.” And the heart of those holiday celebrations is, of course, food—particularly in Eid Al Fitr, where families and friends gather together to forgive each other after fasting for 30 days. You can imagine that sharing meals is a big part of that celebration.
This, of course, fits right in with what the film is trying to say: That forgiveness and seeing the best in people are how we can help the world become a better, safer place. Sharing a meal is a good tool in helping us achieve that. Raya and the Last Dragon may not be a movie entirely about food. But it’s a movie that, in the end, understands really well how food serves an important role in uniting our divided society in general and Southeast Asia in particular.
Reyzando Nawara is a TV and film journalist from Indonesia. He’s mostly talking about Asian representation, foods, and mental health on Twitter. When he’s not busy watching TV and movies, or writing about them, he likes to spend his day in the kitchen, trying new recipes and mostly making sorbet.