So the long winter nights mean catching up on missed television. Unrelatedly, Movie Mondays are a bit thin on the ground these days because I’ve gone through most of my collection of historical DVDs and most of the historical films on YouTube or streaming services that I can bear to watch. But Netflix has this new show Marco Polo, and over the holidays my wife and I have watched the lot of it. And it’s … OK!
I mean, I’m not saying it’s “historically accurate,” but it takes a bigger bite at historical accuracy than most things that have a character with “Khan” in his name. (The appalling The Conqueror, for instance.) Mind you, when I was a youth my parents gave me a book which I now learn was based on a 1982 series about Marco Polo which seems to be well-regarded. That one was mainly about the friendship between Marco and Zhenjin (called Chinkim in the 1982 series and Jingim in the 2014 one). Anyway, it’s on YouTube for now:
(Holy crap, that thing has Denholm Elliott, David Warner, Burt Lancaster, John Gielgud, F. Murray Abraham, Anne Bancroft, James Hong, Ian McShane and Leonard Nimoy in it!)
Now, I’m not going into detail summarising ten hours of television, and I don’t want to get too spoilery, so let’s take the high-level approach. This is clearly a series in the sort of “The Tudors” / “The Borgias” model, focusing on the intrigues and rivalries at Kublai’s court at Khanbaliq (Cambulac in the series, following, I believe, Polo’s spelling?). It’s a good setting, because you get all these diverse characters — Kublai’s court includes Mongols, Chinese officials, Persians, various Central Asian peoples, loads of other nationalities and of course European wildcard Marco (Lorenzo Richelmy). As the outsider, Marco gets to learn things along with the viewer. Many of the characters are drawn from history, even if they all don’t quite overlap — so Kublai’s brother Ariq shows up as an enemy, for example, although he and Kublai actually fought before the action of the series takes place. For budget or narrative reasons, everything is shrunk down so that the big military conflict is between Kublai (Benedict Wong) and the Song Dynasty, here personified by minister Jia Sidao (Chin Han), over a single city, which narrows the scope a little bit, but I guess all the travelling will be in Season 2.
And then there’s all this other stuff kind of stuck in, like a brush with the Assassins (who did clash with the Mongols, just not these Mongols, I don’t think), and Marco’s training under a blind Wudang monk, Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu), and then there’s a beautiful princess with a dark secret (Zhu Zhu) and a tough princess who kicks ass (Claudia Kim) and a scheming finance minister (Mahesh Jadu) and a big strong principled warrior guy (Uli Latukefu) and a hardass Mongol empress (Joan Chen) and rival Mongol warlords like Kaidu (Rick Yune) and and and …
So, stipulating that this is American TV, it is not (or doesn’t seem to be) appallingly racist! It has its moments — is it OK if we never shoot another scene in which some Chinese-American (or in this case Chinese-Canadian) actress has to purr about forbidden love secrets? Can we do that? — but in general it’s not afraid to let Asian actors take the lead, and it portrays Asian cultures in a respectful (if kind of superficial) way. Marco doesn’t come in and show everybody how to do it — he has a Big Idea at one point, but it’s quickly followed by a reversal that reminds people he can’t just do what everyone else does.
So it’s got pageantry, it’s got anachronisms, it’s got pandering (nudity! Kung fu! Nude kung fu!), it’s got weird moments of historical fidelity, like film-Marco sharing book-Marco’s keen interest in taxation and economics (which turns out to be a plot point, but it’s well-seeded). It’s got totally implausible battle scenes, like the one where Kublai decides that the way to attack a breach in a city wall is with a cavalry charge, it’s got characters who can fling a hairpin with throat-piercing accuracy. I mean, it’s goofy as all hell, but it occurs to me that it’s goofy in a very familiar way.
And then I realised: it’s basically a Chinese historical epic. The larger-than-life characters, the reduction of historical issues to personal rivalries, the shouting-in-unison, the major government officials settling their affairs with kung fu, the whole bit. It’s like any one of a hundred of these things — I’m a total junkie for them; just give me hundreds of guys in elaborate armour rushing into some kind of palace square with pikes and halberds and I’m happy — except they figured out a way to make it with a white dude in the lead and have it make sense.
Which is kind of disappointing, I suppose, but y’know.
- Historically accurate? Oh my no.
- Crunchy nuggets of educational value? Sure.
- Pageantry and display? Check.
- More respectful of Chinese culture and history than you might expect? Check.
- Still not free from flaws? Check.
- Looks great? Check.
- Good dialogue? Mostly not.
- Final verdict? S’allright.