This year has seen two primates leading at the box office: Sun Wukong the Monkey King, and Caesar in The Planet of the Apes franchise. The chest-thumping action aside, let us discuss their very different leadership styles and cultural backgrounds.
The Chinese makers of Monkey King invited notable A-list actors (such as Donnie Yen, that violent man from Law & Violence and Kill Zone, and Chow Yun-fat, the Bullet Proof Monk), created comical situations for them, had them struggle, yet ultimately devised a happy ending: The gods regained peaceful control over all minorities. It’s a divine comedy.
This has created a heated debate in China on the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Stakeholders are wondering how, the 1 billion yuan ($163 million) domestic box office record aside, someone so powerful as the Monkey King holds so little sway over Western cineastes.
China is not alone in its uphill battle for global recognition. India’s own shape-shifting monkey king, Hanuman, is virtually absent from the Western psyche. It seems only US ally Japan had some success in the West with Goku from the (animated) Dragonball franchise. For international strategy, the boyish superhero – based on Sun Wukong – was carefully redesigned, sparing only his monkey-tail trademark.
Is the Monkey King too Tang dynasty? While The Planet of the Apes works fine by its orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees, the Monkey King entails plenty of legendary characters, esoteric symbolism and Chinese folklore: If Apes is raw meat, King is a fancy cake.
Cultural preconceptions do matter. For example, do Chinese viewers know (or should they know) that Caesar is also the name and title of a Roman dictator? Do Western viewers need to know who the Jade Emperor is?
Monkeys or houzi have always had a positive image in Chinese culture. The monkey is even part of the Chinese Zodiac. That’s why Sun Wukong can’t do any harm. Caesar, on the other hand, is the irascible alpha ape on steroids (literally, his high IQ is the result of biotechnological engineering). He is strong and fierce, and although he is shown militarized (on horse, wielding a machine-gun) on the (misleading) film posters and trailers, throughout the movie he acts wise and considerate – until the third act when he is forced to retaliate.
The original rise of the apes is the product of French science fiction writer Pierre Boulles (1963). But Apes is a US spin-off with a typical American “superhero” twist: Caesar got his super-ape intelligence from a drug called ALZ-112. Sun, in contrast, is not a leader but a principle: a force of nature. He is a Taoist immortal, a Buddhist deity born of a celestial rock, carrying a magical golden-hooped rod that is said to weigh 8 tons. A bit inane, he is rebellious and impatient. He fell off the 33th floor of heaven, unharmed, because he is the product of 2,000 years of advanced Chinese mythology.
While for Caesar quick death lurks behind every corner – wild beasts, traitors, stupid decision-makings and, well, environmental threats such as marauding humans – Sun is technically invincible. One day Sun got so bored from causing tidal waves and cloning himself a thousand times that he crawled down into hell and had his name removed from the Book of Death.
Caesar is naked and vulnerable. He functions as the revolutionary leader in post-apocalyptical San Francisco, a story that is bound to provoke social commentary on race, equality and war. The fantasy world of Sun, however, is far remote from reality, inhabited by puffer fish monsters, flying monks and golems that look a lot like Sponge Bob from the Nickelodeon channel.
In the tradition of propagating the US as the chronologist of world history, Hollywood has dome two crucial things for Apes: visualizing the end of humans and the rise of a competitor, starting point California in the US; and thinking hard about when and how letting the main cast die – for the optimal suffering of global audiences. The result is perfect tragedy.
Caesar is a universal leader, regardless of origin; he is willing to lead his species and shape the world, and subjugate it, if need be. He points to the future. Sun guards his people and their traditions. He looks back at their glorious past.
The author is a German writer, linguist and cultural critic.