Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Marco Polo: A “Latin” in the Court of Kublai Khan, on Netflix

He wrote the equivalent of a bestselling memoir, before the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press. Dozens of hand-written manuscripts of The Travels of Marco Polo have widely circulated, making it rather difficult to determine the canonical truth of the celebrated merchant’s life. That might be frustrating for scholarly biographers and historians, but it rather takes the pressure off filmmakers dramatizing his life. Before securing his fame and fortune, the young Venetian (or “The Latin” as he will often be called) finds an unusual place in the Court of Kublai Khan, becoming enmeshed within a geo-political struggle between two ancient dynastic powers in Marco Polo (trailer here), an original ten episode historical series premiering on Netflix this Friday.

Polo never knew his father Niccolò Polo, until the Venetian trader made a brief homecoming, before setting off for Asia once again. Desiring a paternal relationship, the younger Polo invited himself along, but it is soon apparent he is quite well-attuned to rhythms and mysteries of the Eastern world, perhaps even more than his father and uncle. In fact, the great Kublai Khan accepts Marco Polo into his service, when Niccolò Polo offers to barter him in exchange for trading rights along the Silk Road. Of course, the son is quite put out by this, but his father promises to return, which he will, but maybe not in the manner he imagined.

Valuing Polo’s shrewd observations unclouded by courtly biases, Kublai Khan often dispatches the Latin to report on flashpoints within his empire. Not surprisingly, Polo’s favor rather displeases the Khan’s Chinese-educated son, Prince Jingim. Frankly, Polo is not exactly close to anyone in court, least of all the Khan’s trusted ministers. However, he will develop something approaching friendship with Byamba, the Khan’s illegitimate son with one of his many concubines. Polo also becomes ambiguously involved with Kokachin, the Blue Princess, the last surviving noble of a conquered people, and Khutulun, the Khan’s independent-minded warrior niece.

Regardless of historical accuracy, writer-creator John Fusco spends enough time in the Khan’s harem to make the broadcast networks curse the FCC. As Mel Brooks would say, it’s good to be the Khan. Yet, despite the nudity and hedonism, some of MP’s strongest action figures are women. As Khutulun, Korean actress Claudia Soo-hyun Kim credibly wrestles men twice her size and projects a smart, slightly subversive sensibility. Olivia Cheng also displays first class martial arts chops (sometimes naked) as Mei Lin, a Song concubine who infiltrates the Khan harem on the orders of her war-mongering brother, the villainous Imperial Regent Jia Sidao. Zhu Zhu’s Kokachin might be more demur, but she is still quite compelling, balancing her vulnerability with resoluteness. Of course, international superstar Joan Chen frequently upstages everyone as the iron-willed Empress Chabi.

Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy holds his own as best he can amid the exotic locales and pitched battles, maintaining the necessary fish-out-of-water earnestness. However, he is no match for the British Benedict Wong (son of naturalized Hong Kong parents), who absolutely dominates the series as Kublai Khan. Although he put on considerable weight for the role, it is his commanding presence that really seems huge. Likewise, Tom Wu is terrific delivering the goods for genre fans as Hundred Eyes, Polo’s blind tutor in the martial arts.

In the initial episodes, MP offers more intrigue and Game of Thrones style decadence than actual fist-and-sword action, but the martial arts melees increase as the series progresses, with the threat (or promise) of an epic war hanging over everyone’s heads. There is a lot of setting-the-scene in episode one, but it quickly sets the addictive hook in the second installment and reels in viewers from there. Kon-Tiki directors Espen Sandberg & Joachim Rønning give the pilot an appropriate sense of mystery and sweep, which carries forth throughout the show. Based on the six episodes provided to the media, MP definitely seems to maintain its passion-fueled energy and richly detailed period production values. Highly recommended (so far), Marco Polo launches for binge-streaming this Friday (12/12) on Netflix.