Sunday, January 18, 2015

Lee Liberman on Netflix streamer MARCO POLO: Better than you've heard; try it--and stick with it

This post is written by our Sunday Corner 
correspondent, Lee Liberman

Happily, Netflix has renewed John Fusco's gorgeous and thoughtful epic MARCO POLO for a second season. The critics were harsh for good reason but viewers liked this medieval Asian game of thrones, devised by Fusco (shown below), a screenwriter and novelist, as well as the showrunner for this series.

The 90 million dollar first 10 episodes depict Marco Polo's conscrip-tion into the service of Mongol ruler Kublai Khan as the Khan pursues his ambition to rule all China.

For similarity to the Asian Steppe, Kazakhstan is Fusco's vast and beautiful canvas; studios in Malaysia provide the interiors. The costumes are richly handsome, the score engrossing, especially Mongolian throat-singing and instrumentation -- and the falling, bleeding ink drawings that contain the opening credits are magic.

An interesting (if sometimes awkward and stilted) script is textured with believable relationships, rivalries, and provocative discussion among fathers, sons, and ministers on the merits of diplomacy versus war. If you watch -- do listen.

The argument feels particularly modern. On the other hand, love gets short shrift, consisting of gauzily filmed writhing concubines and a few perfunctory love scenes. It's the emotionally-neutered titillation we have come to expect of most cable series. (An exception is genuine affection and respect between Kublai and Empress Chabi.)

The epic starts in Venice (above) and follows the perilous 3-year caravan of Polos (father, son, uncle) to Mongol capital city Cambaluc (now Beijing) -- a journey that wraps in half an episode. Travel and trade are the least of the story -- this tale is about military conquest, empire building, and family.

Arriving in disfavor, Niccolo Polo barters the service of his son to Kublai in exchange for continuing trade in Mongol territory. Thus abandoned by his father, Marco's in-and-out of favor role as servant/advisor begins. The Khan had a craven father (the alcoholic Tolui, fourth son of Genghis, who died young), and he acknowledges Marco's dismay. Kublai tells Marco: "I was about your age when I knew I had to become the man I wished my father were." Marco rises to the challenge and the Khan becomes the father figure whose approval Marco wants to gain.

Kublai's grandfather Genghis (d. 1227) was the first nomad chieftain to expand Mongol territory, his armies fighting galloping battles on their small strong ponies into Central Asia, parts of the Middle East and to the East as far as Korea. Genghis's heir, Ogedai, expanded farther into China, Persia, Russia, and other Asian city states. The geographic holdout was the Song Dynasty in Southern China. There was a gap of years after Ogedai died until Kublai became Khan and resumed Genghis's quest to conquer the Song. Kublai succeeded in 1276, helped in our story by Marco's knowledge of Western war machinery. At that point Kublai became the ruler of the world's largest contiguous land empire reaching from Europe to the ocean; it was to break apart in less than 150 years.

That the flaws in this tale of Marco Polo mar its enjoyment only a little is a tribute to the success of the whole -- an unusually lovely, sweeping, and engrossing portrayal of 13th century Chinese and Mongol politics and culture. The weakness-in-chief is Lorenzo Richelmy (above) as Marco Polo. Richelmy is said to be a rising young Italian star and deserves credit for learning English and Mongol warrior skills in a few months prior to filming -- well done that. But his screen presence is vacuous; there's nothing in the eyes and his hollow affect leaves a hole in the tapestry. (Mr. Fusco, please import James Franco to your set to teach Richelmy how to animate Marco per Franco's Tristan in Tristan and Isolde (2006), or better yet, give Franco the part.)

Never mind Marco, Kublai himself (Benedict Wong, shown above), rises like a lion to occupy the center of this story. (A YouTube of British actor Wong reveals a mild, modest man compared to his outsize screen presence.) Kublai is present even when he's not and his interactions with his family and subordinates offer a striking portrait of leadership, management, ruthlessness, and family love.

Kublai's younger brother Arik played by Mongolian actor, Baljinnjamyn Amarsaikhan, prefers to do business with the Song rather than conquer them. Arik wants to rule the Mongols -- Kublai wants to rule the world. On this they have words, embrace one another, and cross swords in the morning on a killing field, above.

The court of the Chinese Song Dynasty has its own cast of hawks and doves dominated by maniacal Chancellor Jia Sidao (Singaporean actor, Chin Han), the cunning "cricket minister" obsessed with the killing tactics of the Praying Mantis. It has the traits of a warrior king, says Sidao -- patience, speed, adaptability, and ruthlessness, which Sidao employs to deadly effect below.

Many players in this international assembly revolve around Marco and reveal Kublai's insatiable curiosity about other cultures, which Fusco reflects in his casting. Rick Yune (Kaidu), of Korean descent, is the only American-born actor (a Wharton graduate). Joan Chen (American immigrant from Shanghai), Empress Chabi, is entirely devoted to Kublai. She chooses his concubines and manages the harem both to minimize his demands on her for intimacy (he having grown unpleasantly fat) and to maintain her control over his affections.

Prince Jingim (Remy Hii, above, left, an Australian of Chinese/English parentage), the handsome heir, has a Chinese name and been tutored by Chinese scholars in preparation for his eventual rule over a united Chinese Empire. Jinghim's jealousy of his father's interest in Marco waxes and wanes with his own wins and losses as he matures into warrior and diplomat. "I realize now how much pressure one is under turning a son into a man....." Jingim tells Chabi. And the Prince must navigate among competing courtiers -- finance minister Ahmad (Indian Australian, Mahesh Jadu), soft-spoken war hawk, and wise vice-regent, Yusef, a devout Muslim, who counsels diplomacy and cautions against expansion. Yusef explains quietly that egos destroy empires not armies -- Kublai is driven to the (Song) wall by the ghost of Genghis. (Yusef is played by major Egyptian film star, Amr Waked.)

Hundred Eyes, blind Taoist monk (martial arts master, British Tom Wu, shown above, right), schools Marco in warrior skills, his flinty sarcasm turning into loyal support. The martial artist explains to Marco: kung fu is not just how to fight but rather the relentless, exhausting effort it takes to perfect one's art, whatever the medium.

Another weakness of this saga is lackluster romance -- most disappointing between Marco and Blue Princess Kokachin (beautiful Chinese pop princess Zhu Zhu, above, right) but also affecting Byama and Kutalin, two attractive Mongol warriors. The standard for series romance has now been set by Diana Gabaldon's and Ronald D. Moore's collaboration on Outlander (Starz) making surface treatments much less welcome. Opportunity is missed with a Marco/Kokachin story arc that is confusing, stilted, and almost entirely lacking in sexual tension. Romance is not on Fusco's radar despite the pretty picture.

The action that does dominate the screen most affectingly is the domestic and political interplay at both the Mongol and Song courts and the steady escalation of tension and intrigue as war approaches. (The series catches fire too slowly but early episodes are much better after you see the entirety and then revisit early chapters.) Meanwhile wild goose chases, assassination attempts, episodes of torture, battle, and failed diplomacy march forward to the inevitable final confrontation. Watch it unfold on Netflix for many hours of visual pleasure and thought-provoking discussions of war and peace. Click here (or maybe on the photo itself) to enlarge The Khan Empire, shown below. in order to read the captions on this visual map of major characters and their relationships.

Two special notes: 
1. Ju Kun of Beijing, China, a martial arts choreographer on the Marco Polo project, went down on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, the plane lost mysteriously on March 8, 2014. Australian authorities carry on the deep water search 1000 miles off the coast of Perth, having recently added an underwater drone to their equipment.

2. "Mystery Files: Marco Polo" narrated by Brian Dennehy on the Smithsonian Channel (2011) is a provocative short documentary on Netflix that challenges assumptions about Marco Polo. The contention-in-chief is that there is no documentary evidence of one man involved in the stories described in the Polo books. Polo is known absolutely not to be the author of his stories. Rather he is said to have described his adventures while in jail to Rustichello of Pisa, a historical romance adventure writer who is known as a source of versions of the Arthurian legends. There are more than a hundred differing versions of Rustichello's Polo travels, though no first edition.

Scholars now suppose Rustichello assembled information from various travel accounts and made Marco Polo the hero of them, creating legend not unlike that of King Arthur in which the facts vary with retelling. There was a Polo family of merchants in Venice and one named Marco who might have traveled to China, but there is no proof of such travel. The lifespan of the Marco Polo of fact does not match up with battles and other occurrences annotated in Chinese annals of the time that Polo was said to have participated in, such as the siege and conquest of the Song in 1276.

Scholars continue to look for Rustichello's original book as well as for evidence of Marco in Venice and in highly detailed original Chinese records. For now, in the absence of new information, it's presumed Polo is a hero of myth but myth that does have some historical basis in fact. Similar to the debate as to whether Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, we can agree that stories of Marco Polo's travels & years at the Mongol court are great adventure, offering a window on the medieval world of the East.

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