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?)
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.
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.
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*
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.)
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.
NOTE: All the images used were publicly released by Netflix for promotional purposes.
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Dec 19, 2014 @ 20:33:29
Wow. Great piece on Marco Polo.
I pretty much agree with everything you said. yeah, including handsome Asian men, haha.
About Real Life Marco Polo’s white savior complex though, I have a different interpretation of his motivations.
Marco Polo lived in a time when the East was way more advanced and developed than Europe. In fact, he was quite overtaken by the scale and prosperity of the great cities of Cambulaq(Khanbaliq, the city of Khan, predecessor of Beijing) and Hangzhou(the former Song captial). Kublai’s empire was the center of the world.
Marco Polo grossly exaggerated his own importance in the court of Kublai Khan. Beside the Xiangyang Trebuchet that he falsely claimed credit for, he also claimed to be the governor of the great city of Yangzhou. Yet, Chinese official roster of Yangzhou officials during Yuan dynasty did not contain any mention of his name. It’s also highly unlikely that he witnessed the invasion of Japan by Kublai’s fleet.
Yet rather than painting himself as a white savior of the East, he is actually trying to prove to his Western Audience that he is more important than he was in the court of the most powerful ruler in the world. In fact he is trying to gain currency by claiming close association with this wonderful, magical, powerful Eastern civilization.
Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century decidedly tipped the scale in the favor of Western European countries(Kenneth Pomeranz’s made an excellent case in his “The Great Divergence” that Yangtze Delta had comparable living standard to England prior to 1750s). Along with it, European interlopers in the East have adopted this cultural condescending attitude toward Asian cultures. Hence the appearance of white savior complex.
But wind of change of shifted again. The geopolitical balance is again tilting toward the East as Asian countries start to modernize rapidly. Asian market will become ever more important to Hollywood. Here we have Netflix trying to expand into those waters with Marco Polo. Times are looking up for long neglected Asian talents.
Dec 19, 2014 @ 22:08:01
Carl – your take sounds solid. It’s almost like he was the Forrest Gump of the times. The Marco Polo of history was certainly a great PR man for himself, in any case. The Travels of Marco Polo do show an outsider thoroughly enthralled and taken in by these new people and cultures he encountered.
The later Victorian views were very different. I think a lot of the misconceptions of Asian culture by the West come from these later 18th and 19th century views, during the colonial periods. Similarly, the talk of foreign devils and such from the Asian side stem from that period.
Which goes to why Marco Polo might be easily accepted in the Khan’s court. There was no such thing as the white devil yet.
Jan 03, 2015 @ 17:30:27
Lin- Marco Polo also claimed that he was a governor, however their is no local oral or written record of him in office.
Jan 10, 2015 @ 18:51:04
OMG, yes! I’m only on episode 4, but this show is great- although Marco Polo’s presence is more of a nuisance than anything in a show filled with such interesting personalities (and hot actors)! And cultural nuance (at least more than is typical). I did wonder if Kublai Khan’s court was quite as Chinese-influenced as they made it seem, however, since I think I see much more Chinese art and architecture than Mongolian. I’m not up on my history. Was it?
Don’t Miss Marco Polo | Gnu Reads
Jan 31, 2015 @ 18:44:04
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