TV Tuesday: Marco Polo, Season 2 (2016)

Marco Polo is back on Netflix, and I’m still enjoying it within its own somewhat derpy terms. It takes the story of Marco Polo and uses it to ask the question “what would it be like if Game of Thrones had more kung fu?” The answer is about as fun as it sounds.

As I have said before, they found a way to make a stock Chinese historical soap-epic thing with a white guy in the lead role, although to be perfectly honest calling Marco the lead and putting his face on the promo images is a bit of an exaggeration. This show should really be called Kublai Khan, since Benedict Wong’s performance is the centre of the whole thing. And the fact that Marco is the nominal lead tends to obscure the fact — the remarkable fact — that this is an American TV show with one-count-’em-one white dude in it, which is … again, that’s not common, surely.

Historically, it’s about as loosey-goosey as it was in the previous season; I had just looked up one of the characters and discovered that he lived to a ripe old age when I saw him brutally killed on the screen. A history lesson it ain’t. But on the other hand, I think it’s fair to say that this is probably the best American TV show ever made about medieval Chinese history. I could be wrong, but if there’s any competition other than the 1982 Marco Polo series, I don’t know what it is.

But even apart from the low standard of the competition, it does get across a few important ideas that your typical US TV viewer might not have known much about, including the idea of different regions of China having important differences, the Mongol court being ethnically and ideologically diverse (we see more Christian Mongols this season, for instance), and something of the politics of the Mongols, who are presented as a civilised nomadic warrior culture rather than as the usual greasy barbarians.

So, yeah; only three episodes in but I’ll continue to watch, primarily for the spectacle but also because they have Michelle Yeoh in this season (I guess that’s spectacle too) and because I really support people making TV shows out of periods of history that don’t get covered enough. The dialogue is still 85% terrible, though.

TV Tuesday: Marco Polo, Season 2 (2016)

Movie Monday, sorta: Marco Polo


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.

To summarise:

  • 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.
Movie Monday, sorta: Marco Polo