Underrated TV: Marco Polo
When we hear the words “period drama”, thoughts of a Euro-centric story line are immediately conjured. Images of corsets, footmen, sword fights, ladies with impeccable manners, glittering balls, valiant knights, pistols and stagecoaches are not uncommon. It is not difficult to forget that the world did not centre solely around the British Empire. The kingdoms of France, Spain, Netherlands, Russia, Germany and Italy (among others) helped shape Europe as we know it today. Yet most period films we are familiar with are presented as though other countries of the world did not have rich, engaging, alluring histories and stories that helped form the nations and cultures we know of today. It’s rare to find a period drama set in the Far East and I didn’t know how much I needed one until Marco Polo came along.
Consisting of ten episodes released in December 2014 on Netflix, it details the story of Marco Polo (Lorenzo Richelmy), the Italian explorer who kept well documented records of his travels to the East and time spent at the court of Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong), the ruler of Mongolia in the 13th Century.
The series takes place in the midst of Khan’s plans to increase the reach of his empire into Chinese territory. He encounters Marco Polo who travelled to Mongolia with his merchant father and soon depends on him as an adviser much to the displeasure of his son and heir, Prince Jingim (Remy Hii), who doesn’t trust Marco and his intentions. Marco finds companionship in his martial arts trainer Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu) and The Blue Princess Kokachin (Zhu Zhu). Other members of the Khan Court include his chief wife Chabi (Joan Chen), adopted son and Minister of Finance Ahmad (Mahesh Jadu), bastard son Byamba (Uli Latukefu) as well as the Khan’s brother and cousin.
In the walled city of Xiangyang, the Emperor has died and left as his heir a small child, who is held under the sway of Chancellor Jia Sidao (Chin Han). The Khan has designs on overtaking Xiangyang. Jia Sidao sends his sister the late Emperor’s favourite concubine, Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng) to be a spy, holding her daughter as a captive to keep her loyal.
Now that we got all that out the way, let’s get into why you should be watching it!
Netflix has a history of and reputation for producing brilliantly written, buzz-worthy, award-winning, thought-provoking series. We have all been a part of the hype of Orange is the New Black, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, House of Cards, Master of None or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt… so why hasn’t Marco Polo been at the forefront of this public love affair with Netflix’s offerings?
Could it be audience unfamiliarity with the content? The lack of immediately recognisable stars? Poor promotion? All of the above? None? Doesn’t matter! I am here to tell you to give it a chance. Now, I have to admit the writing isn’t spectacular and the first episode or two move slowly, and at first I had no emotional investment in the characters. However, it did get a whole lot better once it fully expanded the story from Marco’s fish out of water misadventures. The scenes that involved the inner workings of Mongolian-Chinese culture were absorbing, a far cry from the impeccable manners of the period dramas we all know and love. The fight scenes, the images of war are absolutely stunning, and you would be hard pressed to find another series with such high production values on such a large scale. The characters generally need some work but Mei Lin, Kublai Khan, Jia Sidao and Hundred Eyes are the stand outs among the cast. Lorenzo Richelmy does an honourable job as Marco Polo (this is his first English speaking role) but I was not 100% sold on him – my hope is that he finds greater comfort and ease in the role when series 2 airs.
This is not your conventional period piece, so if you are in the mood for something beyond the typical drawing room conversations, high society social climbing and chevalier musings, invite a friend over to Netflix and chill (no seriously, just chill) and add Marco Polo to your queue.