Raya meets Camus: So you think it’s just a kids movie, eh?

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Editor’s note: As the worldwide box office for “Raya and the Last Dragon” reached a reported $90.5 million last week, university English lecturer Lei Jiao watched the film in Wuhan, China, with Ruby, her teenage film critic daughter. Jiao struggles to tell her scholarly partner, Buck Ryan, that “Raya” is just a kids movie, one whose budget exceeded $100 million. A movie theater ticket in Wuhan goes for $4.27.

“Raya is no Mulan, I’ll tell you that, Lei.”

“Do you mean the 20 percent fewer $30 purchases on Disney+ for its opening-day box office?”

“No, I mean the symbolism. Mulan never had me re-reading Albert Camus’ 1947 classic novel, ‘La Peste’. Pardon my French.”

“So you think the evil spirits in ‘Raya’ are really the coronavirus creating a plague?”

“Don’t you?”

“And the five tribes that our Asian princess warrior is trying to reunite represent our world trying to come together to defeat COVID-19?”

“Precisely, the existential truth.”

“And the moral to Raya might be an antidote to ‘Hate is a Virus’ and all the anti-Asian sentiments and violence?”

“Maybe.”

“Buck, take a nap. This is just a kids movie.”

“What did Ruby think?”

“She loved it! Amazing art design, incredible landscapes, intense action scenes. And so many adorable characters. Tuk Tuk, my fav, reminded me of my childhood friends — those pill bugs I found in the woods near my home.”

“Did Ruby take comfort in seeing that good can triumph over evil if we can all stick together?”

“No, Buck, she took comfort in getting a break from schoolwork. ‘Raya’ may be a great escape from those real-world worries. But it’s no cure.”

“Exactly what Camus said.”

“What?”

“The Plague sweeping the French Algerian town of Oran goes ‘slinking back to the obscure lair from which it had stealthily emerged.’ There is no cure for the virus. It just goes underground.”

“Well, I guess you can say that’s true, Buck, whether you’re talking about racism or a coronavirus.”

“Amen.”

“Among the netizens in China, I’m picking up some negative comments about the film’s utopian belief that you can end up saving the world if you forgive a traitor twice.”

“Not exactly, fool me once, as the saying goes.”

“I know, I know. But now can’t we just enjoy the film? Nothing like an Asian Disney princess to cheer me up.”

“Wait, Lei, what about the film’s message? Fighting the plague with belief, unity and cooperation — and putting magic second only to trust to bring people together.”

“Yes, Buck, and it’s all done in such a subtle, artistic yet moving and relatable fashion.”

“Pure genius! But what about Raya’s dragon sidekick. It looks like My Little Pony.”

“Haha, you mean Sisu! It doesn’t look like Mushu, that’s for sure.”

“Don’t remind me, I’m still mad at Disney for snuffing out Mushu in the live-action version of ‘Mulan.’”

“Well now you can enjoy Sisu, Buck.”

“It’s a girl, right?”

“Yes, that’s true. ‘Raya’ is a Girls Power! movie all the way. A princess in no need of a prince. That’s why I loved seeing it with Ruby.”

“What about that Vietnamese farmers hat that Raya wears? Is this Disney princess Vietnamese rather than Chinese, like Mulan?”

“Well, Disney creates quite the Asian and Asian-American mashup, so it’s hard to say. The actress who plays Raya, Kelly Marie Tran, was born in San Diego, California, after her parents fled Vietnam.”

“What’s the mashup?”

“Well like you said, there’s the Vietnamese bamboo hat, but also Thailand’s Watertown; tom yum soup, my favorite Thai dish; Malaysian/Indonesian combat; the all-American high-five, and some clear Chinese influences.”

“What part is Chinese?”

“That’s a tricky question, Buck, as the Chinese have spread throughout Southeast Asia for centuries — through business certainly in Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Japan, Korea and Vietnam all used Chinese characters for writing their language; Japan still does.”

“Well as you and Ruby watched ‘Raya,’ what particularly jumped out as being Chinese?”

“There’s the Chinese belief about ‘energy in the water’ from the theme song lyrics, the Chinese preference for the circular shape to represent reunion and, of course, the Chinese dragon.”

“Ah, yes, the dragon! No better way to explain East versus West.”

“I know what you mean, Buck. In China the dragon is noble. In America it’s nefarious, even fire-breathing. For us the dragon is a symbol of power, especially over typhoons, and it is a symbol of luck for people who are worthy.”

“So green like a four-leaf clover, but not blue.”

“Oh, Buck, leave those Sisu creators alone! After all this is just a kids movie.”

“Not to me! ‘Raya’ is just the inspiration the world needs right now to fight the pandemic, the evils of hate and all the forces that keep us from unity. Is that too absurdist to think, Lei?”

“Not for you and Camus!”

About the authors: Buck Ryan, a University of Kentucky journalism professor, and Lei Jiao, an English lecturer at Wuhan University of Technology, Hubei Province, China, collaborate on articles to advance cross-cultural understanding. Ryan, who is doing a “participatory case study” of the News + Record, has been a visiting scholar at three universities in China. You can read their review of “Mulan” here.

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