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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.