Marco Polo is STILL my drug

marco-620So in December 2014, I went a bit fangirl wild over the Netflix mini-series about Marco Polo. Sure, there were a few bumps in the initial episodes as the series found its stride, but the beautiful sets, kung-fu action, strong acting, kickass females and eye candy (Remy Hii, Uli Latukefu) were more than enough to keep me riveted until the endgame of season 1 which was wuxia-tastic and so much awesome.

I have been eagerly awaiting for the second season ever since. When I learned that Michelle Yeoh had been cast, I was beside myself. When was this going to happen because I needed it now!!!

When I learned that all the episodes for season 2 would be available at once on July 1, I was giddy. I could clear my schedule on the holiday weekend and chain watch.

And I did. On July 3rd, I watched all 10 episodes before hitting pause midway through the finale because it was 3am and I could barely keep my eyes open.

My verdict? Season 1 times TEN.

The acting is amazing with the actors really coming into their own in the second season. Marco is still awwight. His role here is observer and I’m okay with that. The Asian cast is just stellar and I feared for the vacuum that the departure of Chin Han would leave (so wonderful as Jia Sidao last season), but Mahesh Jadu’s Ahmad was so coolly villainous. I had to Google the character and was just thrilled to find more about the historical counterpart that inspired him. (More on historical backdrop of Marco Polo season 2 later)

Okay…I seriously don’t ‘even know where to start. Will try to avoid spoilers because I really want y’all to watch this show. I think anyone who loves the setting and intrigue in my stories (in short anyone who would follow me to this blog post) will just adore this show.

Reasons You Must Watch Marco Polo Season 2

Hand wave: First, in my reasons why Marco Polo S2 is awesome, I’m not going to go into the sets and costumes and cinematography. I’m going to intentionally hand wave it. Because if that’s mentioned, it’s implied that’s all there is to it: eye candy. So let’s just say everything and everyone looks amazing, because they do.

1. Romantic depth

In Season 1, I felt that Marco and Kokochin’s romance was meh, BUT….BUT!

Who would have thought the failure of that romance would work out in such a touching way in Season 2? I really got that Kokochin, in trying to survive, was trying to be happy with Prince Jingam. (I’m not just showing bias here because I find Remy Hii to be a Hottie McHottie.) I think Remy plays his relationship with Kokochin with so much more nuance and innocence and hope than the Marco/Kokochin relationship from season 1. They were both thrown together (marriage of convenience plot!), but I do believe he falls for her. And the results — heart wrenching on both sides.

And in the light of S2, when Kokochin asks Marco if he loved her (avoiding spoilers), his answer is perfect in the context of how the romance felt in S1. We see this is something that Kokochin has idealized in her mind. So Kokochin’s arc in S2 redeems the lukewarm romance of S1.

This was a tragic relationship worthy of the best tear-jerker wuxia dramas. The romances in this season were, to quote Kokachin (actress Zhu Zhu), : “Beautiful and terrible.”

2. Kung-Fu Storytelling

Notice I avoided the easy Kung-fu kickass action label here. I hate to praise Marco by comparing it to AMC’s The Badlands, since I really want The Badlands to succeed. Sure, The Badlands has some nice looking kung-fu action and wire-fu. However none of the fights, to me, add immensely to the story.

In S1, I was impressed how Fusco showed an understanding of how martial arts styles, schools and backgrounds typically are used for kung-fu character building and storytelling. The fact that Jia Siadao practices Mantis kung-fu and Hundred Eyes practices Wudang Tai Chi Chuan added to their characters.

I think the kung-fu in S2 is actually less pronounced — probably because there’s so much other stuff going on that it no longer has to be the easy selling point? (I say this as someone who has, yes, benefited from martial arts as an easy hook into Asian fiction. My books with swords on them sell more. *shrugs*)

You only have to watch Michelle Yeoh and Tom Wu in their balletic cat and mouse, hit and miss kung fu dance to know that there’s more to the kung-fu in Marco Polo than a bunch of stunts and wires. And the moment where blind warrior Hundred Eyes realizes he’s not alone because he hears a tear falling to the ground. OMG — in any ordinary scene, the badass blind guy would just hear a footstep, but this poetic and beautiful detail is worthy of the best of Chinese dramas. Respect.

3. Olivia Cheng as Meilin

Olivia Cheng’s character Meilin is just amazing. Meilin isn’t a historical figure — though she’s probably based on many historical concubines and imperial women who have had to navigate their way through treacherous times. There’s a lot of freedom with her narrative because of that. I loved her character in S1 and she grows even more in S2.

What I want to say about her is that I was really intrigued how she’s depicted for much of this season. Less overtly sexual (though there’s some dominitrix stuff that I’ll mention later), and much more complex. This is coming off of being one of the most complex characters in S1.

If you look at Meilin’s costuming and styling, she’s done up very differently from S1 where she was always very played up to be very pretty. Her make-up is subdued in S2 and, in her first scenes, her clothing is mannish and drab. These were all powerful choices that served her well. Michelle Yeoh is styled very similarly. These actresses are both gorgeous, but S2 is not playing on their beauty.

There’s a line where Kublai tells Meilin, “Keep lying, it suits you.” All the men she’s trying to manipulate know she’s lying and know what she’s capable of — so she’s not coming from the facade of being a weak female who’s underestimated. Yet they still underestimate her.

4. Historical and Cultural Detail

Yes, I know it’s a drama and not meant to strictly historical. What was intriguing to me was the extent that historical and cultural details were interwoven.

I was so drawn in that I was googling for the historical details that anchored the story between episodes, much like I do when I read fascinating historical fiction. How much of this was true?

Or, in this case, fabled — since a lot of what we know of Genghis and Kublai is fable.

Kublai, Kaidu, Nayan, Khutulun, Jingam, Ahmad, Chabi — all characters with historical counterparts. And their renderings have enough detail that harken back to their counterparts that I can see here history and fiction are intertwined.

Boy Emperor — also a real figure. Though his fate is not quite the same as shown. IRL, he perishes at seven by throwing himself off a cliff. (BTW, I think this Marco Polo fact check article by The Wrap about the Boy Emperor is completely wrong. They used the 16th Song Emperor as reference rather than the 18th and final Song Emperor. When a series of child emperors makes it to the throne, you know the dynasty is in trouble, eh?)

I didn’t catch the name of the Emperor, so maybe I’m wrong here. I’m no expert in Chinese history, but I’m a pretty good armchair expert. And my Wiki/Google-fu doesn’t suck.

Burning birds tale — Totally true! Well, totally fabled to be true. And I was thrilled to see it not just inserted as an “exotic tale of Genghis Khan”, but used as a framing story as well. *Writer geek-gasm.*

Ethnic names and terms. Marco Polo does not shy away from characters using hard to pronounce names and places assuming that we’re going to get it. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it is! By the end of the season, I had learned what a kurultai was – a Mongolian military council of all the head chieftains.

And even more impressively — I learned that this was the standard way that khans were brought to power – by election. Isn’t that cool? As a Westerner (I do consider myself a Westerner, BTW. ), it would have been easy for me to swallow a battle scene after battle scene, might makes right scenario since Genghis and Kublai are known to be powerful and, at times, violent warlords. Marco Polo takes pains to show the process of tribal politics and the importance of the kurultai.

Mongolian civilization – One does not rule a fifth of the known world without being pretty sophisticated, you know? In addition to being a Westerner, I’ve also tended to have a pro-Han Chinese mindset in regards to history. So it’s pretty cool to see the extent of Mongol civilization. And that the Mongols themselves struggled with the identity shift of “walled Chinese cities” vs. dusty ger villages. Also quite interesting that the Yuan Dynasty was a case where the conqueror takes on the social practices of the conquered – though sinicization of Mongolian culture had been going on long before Kublai. Its a complex concept and Marco Polo continues to depict it nicely.

The depiction of Buddhism and Taoism – So, Hundred Eyes is from Wudang mountain. Wudang is famous as a Taoist sanctuary. Historically, Kublai sided with Buddhism and tore down many a Taoist monastery, destroying the scriptures. There is a tiny footnote in the series where it’s mentioned that Hundred Eyes chose to serve Kublai in return for his monastery being spared. I’m inclined to think not — which means a LOT of thought went into putting together this backstory. It’s not just mysticism and nebulous vows of honor.

I also found the portrayal of the young Buddhist monk giving advice to Chabi to be amusing and fresh and much more true to life than the tired fortune cookie sayings from an old guru scenes that typically come with the territory. (I’m Buddhist, BTW.)

Raised Eyebrows

My write-up of S1 had some nitpicks, so in that vein I really only had one moment of, “Hrrrmm…”

Ahmad — who is such a smoothly evil villain is depicted in an S&M bondage-type scenario with Meilin serving as dominitrix. In one scene, she disrobes and reveals a strappy, black leather barely there underwear thing that’s just *eyeroll*.

S&M garb and its anachronism aside, I thought the depiction of highly intelligent and devious Ahmad as a fetishist was a shortcut. In the vein of, here’s a side of sexual deviance to show you how twisted and evil he is. Plus throw in some Asian sexual exoticism.

Sexual deviance = villainy or corruption is too easy of a shortcut. On top of that, S&M = deviance also rang a little flat for me.

At the same time, the use of shibari is visually interesting and Meilin tying her oppressor into these intricate knots is, of course, highly metaphorical. And then there’s once again, some framing that makes these two scenes more than a convenient dose of exoticism and sex bombing.

So I’d have to say, if Marco Polo is using the villain = sexual deviant trope here, it certainly does it with style.

In the vein of Marco Polo’s real final words, I didn’t even list half of what I loved about this season. It’s not just a drama with over the top action that borrowed a bunch of Asian shit for flavor (Pardon my language). Marco Polo is filled with characters who are Asian in behavior and thought and the plot uses recognizably Asian elements of storytelling in a powerful way.

There’s a lot of discussion about cultural appropriation. IMHO, Marco Polo makes an honest effort to dive deep below the surface. And the story is better for it. Once again — Respect.

I hope more people jump on the Marco Polo bandwagon so I can kibitz. Marco Polo is most certainly still my drug and I can’t wait for Season 3 (please, please, please let there be a Season 3!).

Marco Polo is My New Drug

If you know me, it’s probably not hard to guess that I’m an uber fan of the Silk Road. The crossing of cultures and “East meets West” is one of my muses. The Travels of Marco Polo detailing the 13th century explorer’s travels to China and the court of Kublai Khan remains the defining work of the Silk Road and when I found out there was going to be a mini-series, I JUST ABOUT FLIPPED MY LID.

So, you can see how partial I am about this whole venture.

When I first saw the trailer for Marco Polo, I felt that little pitter-patter in my heart. The same pitter-patter I felt when I saw the trailer for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, to be released as a major production in Western theaters. It was an echo of the same happy ache I felt seeing Shogun for the first time — a young child, completely enthralled to finally see Asian faces on Western television. People who looked like me. Fighting, falling in love, having adventures…

(Flashback: In my first phone call with my now agent back when, she told me the pages of Butterfly Swords reminded her of reading Clavell and Shogun. In that moment, I knew she was the one. She could uniquely represent the enthusiasm I felt for this oddball wuxia-inspired adventure featuring a Western swordsman and a Tang princess that seemingly had no place in the world of historical romance. The one that everyone else said would never sell, yet this crazy woman thought it was the best thing since sliced bread.)

I digress — on to Marco Polo! The trailer looked epic, beautiful, exciting — is that a naked woman doing a somersault?! Okay, whatever. No need to sell when you’re already sold.

When the series came out, I paid for a Netflix subscription JUST FOR MARCO POLO. (Like really, go to Netflix, pay the basic $7.99 subscription and you can start watching like NOW)  I watched it over three days, every chance I could, gleefully tweeting my reaction along the way.

And it was as good as I hoped it would be. Better.

Not that it’s not without it’s problems, but Marco Polo tackles what could have been a complete fiasco, and created something that I feel is new and exciting and, there’s that pitter-patter again, shows the type of worlds that I dream of in my head so vividly in mainstream media. This so rarely happens.

Where to start? As you can already see from the trailer, it’s gorgeous. The production values are awesome. The costumes and sets are exquisite. But that’s not all. That’s not even the iceberg.

Things I Love About Marco Polo


The HOT Asian Dudes

They’re not just hot because they’re pretty or muscled, though they are pretty and there are muscles. They’re hot because Asian male leads in this movie get to do stuff, get to be three dimensional characters. They’re sons and husbands and heroes and villains. Scholars and warriors and just plain folk. (Byamba, played by Uli Latukefu)

And they get to kiss the girls, big time. I like that. Move over Glenn. (The Asian Hero: Objectification or Equality?)

Cultural Nuances

The population of China is often thought of as homogenous, but it’s a mix of so many different ethnicities. Marco Polo differentiates Chinese and Mongolians and even tribes within the Mongolian empire. There are Jurchens and Persians and Christians and Muslims. In an early scene, Kublai Khan (played by Benedict Wong) says that he welcomes them all and the depiction of cultures is not mere tokenism. Characters of diverse backgrounds play major roles in the Khan’s court and in the series. And their religious and ethnic backgrounds are recognized and color the way they act and think.


What I particularly liked was the interplay between Mongolian and Chinese culture. Marriages were common between the Mongolian and Chinese court and the Mongols adopted many Chinese ideas and customs. I loved the contrast of the Khan’s palace with the ger villages that his generals lived in.


Prince Jingam — who is smokin’ hot — was educated in Chinese ways and it’s brought up as a source of contention among his people. If you look at Jingam (played by Remy Hii), his hair and dress are markedly Han Chinese in origin in contrast to the Mongolian dress and hairstyles of his comrades. He speaks with what resembles a British or Hong Kong accent. I think this was done on purpose to differentiate him from the speech of the Mongols in a way audiences could easily gauge. The series paid attention to these details and, even better, used them to serve the story.

Strong women

We have the clever courtesan, Mei Lin. We have the Khutulun, Mongolian warrior princess. You might say these are common tough gal archetypes, but we have so much more.

Empress Chabi is a central figure in Kublai’s court and he calls her his beloved. He listens to her above all others. I find her character absolutely refreshing because she isn’t a Lady Macbeth. She’s involved in court intrigue as much as anyone else, but her strength comes from her loyalty. She and Kublai are man and wife and are genuinely committed to one another. She serves as the major example that Kublai Khan’s strength comes from surrounding himself with capable people. Every time actress Joan Chen takes the stage, I think she totally steals the scene and walks away with it.


Kokochin – The Blue Princess of a conquered tribe played by actress Zhu Zhu. She is one of the quieter female characters, but I think it’s good to see that subtlety and quietness can signal strength as well. She serves as Marco Polo’s love interest, reluctant at first, but he grows on her. *sigh* You know I’m a sucker for an East meets West romance.

Khutulun – Played by Claudia Kim. Mongolian warrior princess who has vowed not to marry unless someone can best her wrestling. Men line up to do it only to fail and lose their horses and reputation to her. The series shows her as wily and wiry, able to slip out of any grip. Even Kublai Khan and her own father Kaidu beam with pride when talking about her. She’s amazing.

An interesting footnote – ALL three of these women were historical figures and, aside from Kokachin where some liberties were taken, appear to veer little from their historical depictions. Not only does Marco Polo depict strong women, it doesn’t have to stretch to find or create them.

And then there’s Mei Lin — a favorite name of mine. 🙂


Mei Lin played by Olivia Cheng is a former whore, turned imperial consort, turned assassin. A woman of considerable skill, she’s used as her brother’s pawn. She’s an intriguing portrayal of a woman caught in forces beyond her control, yet always fighting against them. She’s also a manipulator and a schemer and I’m sure she’ll continue to stir up trouble in the next season. You don’t know whether to cheer for her or against her which makes her absolutely fascinating to watch.

The Romances!

I’ve already mentioned the love between Kublai and his Empress. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers to anyone who hasn’t watched yet, but let’s just say I’ve described a couple of very good-looking, complex and sexy male characters and then followed up with some strong and intriguing female characters — you will LOVE how they start to hook up.

I must mention that there was one of my favorite tropes — the courtship duel. And it’s totally sweet how it plays out. When you have a crush on a guy, challenge him to a wrestling match. Now, why didn’t I think of that? *grins*

Kung-fu Fighting

From the moment I saw the first wuxia-style action scene, I know the series is falling into a certain style of Chinese action/drama. I think it’s a bold choice to make, but totally appropriate. The series has the level of drama akin to the Hong Kong costume extravaganzas I grew up with, so why not throw in some kung-fu? I think it’s done realistically–to a point–and tastefully tempered. No running over rooftops or an excessive amount of mystic death touch stuff.


Hundred Eyes, the blind swordsman who trains Marco Polo is the stereotypical taciturn warrior with wise sayings and disapproving of his white charge. “He’s accomplished, for someone with no accomplishments,” Hundred Eyes proclaims of Marco Polo. I’m reminded of James Hong’s character in Balls of Fury, “You suck when you’re nervous, gweilo!”

But Hundred Eyes is done so well with a quiet seriousness and a sense of humor. I’m willing to forgive and even embrace his character. Every kung-fu epic needs a wise old sifu who can break your arm with his little finger.

(I was very proud to have identified his style as resembling Tai chi chuan from his first movements. Turns out he’s a Taoist monk from Wudang which means Tai chi chuan would be an appropriate style.)

Avoiding stereotypes

For the most part. Or at least attempting to play with them. There are tropes a-plenty and those play out as expected, but I loved how they were executed. It’s easy to veer into stereotypes, but I felt Marco Polo was aware of itself and walked the line well.

A prime example is the character of Kublai himself. We’ve all heard stories of how bloodthirsty and violent the Mongols were, but as you walk among his court, you start to be lulled into his sense of humor and his openness to new ideas. He cares about his son and his sense of strength and honor is nuanced. You start to think of him as an old fat uncle, but then he’s chopping off limbs of prisoners and rendering them in giant vats.

The character of the Chinese chancellor Jia Sidao (played by Chin Han) is evil, evil. Despicable in every way. His kung-fu even looks despicable — mantis-style! Unlike Kublai, he’s not surrounded by trustworthy and good people. Everything he does seem to be done on his own. He manipulates the boy Emperor into serving his plans — yet in one moment, the boy reaches up to hug him and for a flash second, I’m reminded that even Jia Sidao is human. In his own self-serving and ambitious way, he’s leading the remnants of a dying empire and trying to keep it afloat.

Marco Polo’s depiction

The rendering of Marco Polo as a fresh-faced traveler from the West who seems to have a way with words was a good choice. It makes sense given Marco Polo’s place in history and his Italian roots — yes, I’m prey to Western stereotypes too.

One of the funniest scenes to me which shows Marco’s vulnerability is when he attempts to woo the warrior princess with words. When he attempts to kiss her, she laughs at him, wrestles him to the ground and has her way with him. I got the sense he’d never even kissed a woman before that point–pretty words aside.

The device allows him to be an observer of larger events — much like the real life Marco Polo. It’s an epic where the title character plays a secondary role. Much like Frodo in LOTR. 🙂

Overall, I got the sense that Marco Polo was humble. He was there to learn. And he’s in way over his head. The Mongols call him “Latin” and “European” with a bit of affection for this naive foreigner who has stumbled into their court.

Stuff I Didn’t Love

Which resulted in what I call the snarly side-eye.

Sexing as a shortcut

OMG, there was so much gratuitous nudity and harem sexing. It was like the show was saying, see! We’re sexy like The Tudors and Game of Thrones and Rome. Watch us, we have boobies. Except for it wasn’t sexy.

It seemed like a shortcut to show this exotic land with these outlandish sexual practices and to get some cheap thrills from lesbian sex and harem scenes. And it seemed so weak when you see how much was put into developing the characters in their own right, especially the women, who were more than their sexuality. Even Mei Lin, who apparently is a sexual goddess, is a lot more complex in her characterization than that.

White savior syndrome or what I call the Trebuchet debacle

This was actually my first and only true eyeroll. Marco Polo at the 11th hour presents the Khan with the trebuchet. Except for the trebuchet was developed in China and the Middle East and very well-known and commonly used in the Song Dynasty.

Note: I was informed by Twitterer @CarlZha that Marco Polo did claim in his journals to have developed the counterweight trebuchet used in the siege of Xiangyang, but that claim has been completely debunked.

So the real Marco Polo as well as this show had a bit of white savior complex. This was especially irksome because the trebuchet was developed by Middle Eastern engineers and there was a scene where the previously naive Marco Polo is now schooling a Muslim engineer on how to improve an invention that he has more practical knowledge of and pretty much invented–Marco Polo is a MERCHANT, folks! And a pretty young and inexperienced one, at that. *black fume-y clouds out of my ears*

But the finale — the finale was SO good, that I promptly forgot the trebuchet incident and just say back and grinned the entire time. And my little pattering heart grew three sizes for Marco Polo.

In conclusion, I LOVE this show. I love these characters. I love the way it looks. I love that a Mongolian woman will shoot you dead if you cross her. I can’t wait to see what happens with Ahmed and Mei Lin — the most interesting budding romance and sizzling with tension.

This sh*@t is my drug and Marco Polo is my new dealer.

Sometimes history makes better source material than fiction for a sweeping, jaw-dropping epic.

*Happy sigh*

NOTE: All the images used were publicly released by Netflix for promotional purposes.

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