Marco Polo at the Court of Kublai Khan – Lie and You Die

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Lorenzo Richelmy as Marco Polo, Netflix’s new ten part series – Season 1

Successful Venetian merchant adventurer Marco Polo (1254-1324) was asked on his deathbed to retract the “fables” he invented in his travel tales, which were written down by Rustichello of Pisa in 1298 following his return to Venice from the lands of Cathay.

His answer ‘…he told barely half of what he actually saw’.

From the Polar Sea to Java, from Zanzibar to Japan the world that Marco Polo described to many of his contemporaries of western Christendom was almost wholly unknown.

The dramatic topography of the Chinese landscape with its great mountains, misty river valleys, trees, lakes and waterfalls had inspired Chinese poets, landscape painters and garden makers for countless centuries before he arrived. His experiences and account of the wealth of Cathay (China), the might of the Mongol empire and exotic customs of India and Africa made his book a bestseller.

Much of what Marco Polo did see on his travels will always remain a mystery. Rustichello aided the ‘romance’ of the story as he was a well-known writer of romances, and a specialist in chivalry and its lore.

The language he employed Franco-Italian was a strange composite tongue that was highly fashionable during the 13th and 14th centuries, when wider knowledge of Cathay (China) began filtering through to the west.

Benedict Wong as Kublai Kahn, from Netflix's Marco Polo photo by Phil Bray

Benedict Wong as Kublai Kahn, from Netflix’s Marco Polo photo by Phil Bray

It wasn’t the first time the west had heard about the mystical land of Cathay.

However it was the first time anyone from the west had lived in the east for twenty-five years and returned home to write an account of their experiences.

The impact Marco Polo’s travel stories had on contemporary Europe were profound.

Marco Polo was a gifted linguist, a master of four languages, whose descriptions of Cathay, its cities and lifestyle would inspire the voyages of Christopher Columbus and others, as well as the imagination of 18th century English writer and poet Samuel Coleridge, whose poem Xanadu was built on his stories romantic notions

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Marco Polo (Lorenzo Richelmy) in Netflix’s Marco Polo

The story, epic in scope and scale was released on December 12, 2014 as a Netflix ten part television series produced by the The Weinstein Co.

In reality Marco Polo had to rely on his wits and instincts to survive for two and half decades at the court of Kublai Khan (1215-1294).

It’s reasonable to assume if he engaged the interest and worked for a man of Kublai Khan’s status and intellect, being trusted with a golden passport to his Kingdom, that he must have had a great deal to say and an ability to say it well.

This would have been no mean feat in that day and age, requiring him to be an intelligent, creative and clever man, above all a ‘presence’. His posture at court too would have had to have been acceptable to have lived there so long.

This doesn’t sadly come across in the script of the first season of the series about Marco Polo, which was its weakest point, when it should have been its greatest strength.

There is a conflict of interests, as Kublai Khan seemingly takes the reins as the central character, with in some episodes Marco Polo seeming almost like an after thought.

Good, very good and fine, the various actor’s performances are overshadowed, as the director and writers give it a great wall of its own to climb and conquer.

Golden Passport

Golden Passport, a foot long x three inches wide inscribed with the words: “By the strength of the eternal Heaven, holy be the Khan’s name. Let him that pays him not reverence be killed.”For the viewer it requires persistence and patience to follow the plot, at least during the first half of the series.

Scriptwriter John Fusco and colleagues at least in the first five or six episodes of the ten, did not ensure the dialogue and action flowed easily, helping the uninitiated to make some sense of what was going on.

The writers and director certainly don’t give their young sensitive actor Lorenzo Richelmy a good posture or a lot to do and it’s a shame. He gives the impression there is much more to him than meets the eye. There is some poor editing and directing decisions in there too.

That said, on the other end of the scale the attention to detail in setting the scenes, the costuming and photography was very well done indeed. The music too is defining, which is required these days.

Pierfrancesco Favino (L) and Lorenzo Richelmy (R) in a scene from Netflix's "Marco Polo." Photo Credit: Phil Bray for Netflix

Pierfrancesco Favino (L) and Lorenzo Richelmy (R) in a scene from Netflix’s “Marco Polo.” Photo Credit: Phil Bray for Netflix

At the Chinese court Marco Polo had to not only come to terms with the physical differences of his new environment, but also the intellectual, philosophical and religious ideas belonging to the people and society that greeted him and treated him as a welcome guest.

This is a place where everyone no matter whom they are, have already had some sort of great pain inflicted on them or their family by their ruler the great Kublai Khan they are meant to remain loyal too.

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Benedict Wong as Kublai Khan and Joan Chen as his Empress Chabi, in Season One of Netflix’s ten part series Marco Polo

Being young when he left home we can assume Marco Polo would have had to be reasonably adaptable in this melting pot of races and traders.

Venice where Marco Polo grew up was the most prosperous city in all Europe during the 13th century. Its merchant families were constantly scheming and competing as they created a new world of power and wealth, which was reflected in the Grand Palazzo’s built along the waters of Venice’s main Canal.

With its geographical position it was also in touch with all the events happening in the East and along the Silk Road, the name coined by Baron Ferdinand Von Richthofen in the 19th century, for the ancient routes that linked Asia and the west.

Marco Polo and his father and his brother took a few years to reach the court of the Khan, so he would have adjusted to travel and to learning about his new environment.

After all he had grown up in a place that thrived for centuries on being politically complex and economically successful.

The representations of the eastern courts with its heirs, hierarchy, concubines and conjugal relationships, as well as those who schemed to rule, and those who failed to do so, certainly give the series an untold richness.

Lorenzo Richelmy (L) and Tom Wu (R)  in a scene from Netflix's "Marco Polo." Photo Credit: Phil Bray for Netflix.

Lorenzo Richelmy (L) and Tom Wu (R) in a scene from Netflix’s Marco Polo, Photo by Phil Bray

Tasked with initiating the ‘Latin’ into their culture by training him in the martial arts, the blind monk Bayan, known as Hundred Eyes has a pivotal role and is sure to gain his own following – Kung Fu the Chinese martial art form gaining in popularity in our age.

Marco learns the way of truth and the right path forward from his wise teacher, with whom great training and fight scenes arrive. He sprouts pearls of wisdom to Marco who is wise enough to learn, even if at times they are ‘clichéd’.

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Uli Latukefu as Byamba and Lorenzo Richelmy as Marco in Netflix’s Season One of Marco Polo

Marco also gains the favour and friendship of Prince Jingim’s warrior brother Byamba and together they make a good team, when given tasks to fulfill.

There is the glorious rustle of silk, which found its way to Europe along the trade routes during antiquity when the Romans loved to wear it.

It takes a while sorting out the characters, who appear in often dimly lit rooms, as they would have been, which is a tick for historical accuracy. Although here it is detrimental to the viewers enjoyment of the show as they peer into the gloom trying to ‘recognise’ players or characters. The fact their back stories’ are not well drawn doesn’t help either.

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Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong, Byamba (Uli Latukefu) and Marco Polo (Lorenzo Richelmy) in Netflix’s Marco Polo, Season One

It will take a while for anyone to feel as if they are becoming familiar friends, which today is important in ensuring that an ongoing television series can be a commercial success, especially with a budget as big as this one has had.

It helps also if you have read the book, although that is not the point today. It should be all about acquainting a new generation with a heritage in stories that have helped to define our culture both visually and powerfully. This just means it’s a lost opportunity to do it well.

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Chinese Chancellor Jia Sidao (Chin Han) in Netflix’s Marco Polo, Season One

It’s an historical fact the Mongolian general, statesman Kublai Khan (1215-1294) extended the control over China started by his father Genghis Khan (about 1162 – 1227).  He had begun encroaching into the north of the country in 1211 and had taken the capital of Yanjing (Daxing) – present day Beijing in 1215.

It would take six decades and the military accomplishments of his grandson son Kublai to complete the consolidation, and become first emperor of the Chinese Yuan or Mongol dynasty, which ruled 1260 – 1294. To achieve that feat in this he is aided by Mahesh Jadu as Ahmad, the Khan’s Minister of Finance and Amr Waked as Yusuf, the Khan’s Vice Regent or Chancellor.

Remy Hill as

Remy Hii as Jingjim, son and heir of Kublai Khan

This is a court full of treachery and deceit, where even the Khan’s son and heir Prince Jingim (Remy Hii) is envious of all who come into his father’s favour or orbit.

Here is a charismatic young man with great abilities full of self doubt and lacking confidence, although the young actor makes sure he’s a mesmerizing presence.

He doesn’t seem to understand the Khan has taken the ‘Latin’ into his confidence because he has no agenda or allegiances.

The accomplished actor Joan Chen plays Kublai’s Empress Chabi and she commands all her scenes. She also leads the women in the series, many of who are on the whole interesting characters who also perform with conviction.

Zhu Zhu is the ‘Blue Princess’ Kokachin, Claudia Kim is Khutulun, a warrior in her own right and Olivia Cheng Mei Lin, a concubine of the late Emperor Lizong of the Song dynasty.

Undoubtedly the women all had to be strong to survive in such a poisonous patriarchal atmosphere, both on the Mongol and Chinese side of the equation.

Back in Europe it was a tough time for women as well so these high born women’s slightly more assertive posture would have been very different for Marco Polo to observe.

The warrior princess, Khutulun (1260-1306) was a cousin of Kublai Khan and she is renowned for accompanying him on military campaigns.

She is very well drawn by Claudia Kim (Kim Soo-hyun) a South Korean actress.  Must say however that all I could think when watching the girls on screen, either naked or clothed, was despite its limitations how glad I am that I have lived in the here and now.

The scenes where the Chinese Chancellor breaks his young nieces feet to initiate her into the art of ‘bound feet’ is indeed exceedingly painful to watch, a practice that amazingly lasted in one form or another until the middle of the twentieth century.

Max KelladyThe small child playing the boy Emperor of China is the five-year-old actor Max Kellady, who is very natural, his curiosity of the praying mantis he is given to observe in a cage, defining.

The Mongol tribes of Turkic-speaking peoples located in north-central Asia between Russia to the north, and China to the South, adapted themselves to the sedentary societies they conquered and ruled.

However, eventually this would affect their mobility and lead to the decline of their military supremacy.

The first Ming Emperor Hongwu did not drive the Mongols out of China until 1644 and, to insure against subsequent attacks, faced and fortified the great wall, 2,700 kilometres long, built in the 3rd century AD.

Overall Marco Polo as a series was good, sadly not great. Perhaps better to say in a word disappointing, because it’s such a great tale that it deserves to be told well.

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Joan Chen as Chabi, empress of the Yuan dynasty, the Khan’s chief wife in Netflix’s series Marco Polo, season one.

Let’s hope it improves in leaps and bounds for Season 2, which has been announced.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015

Watch the Trailer

Marco Polo PosterNetflix
Marco Polo

Starring: Lorenzo Richelmy, Benedict Wong, Joan Chen, Rick Yune, Amr Waked, Remy Hii, Zhu Zhu, Tom Wu, Mahesh Jadu, Olivia Cheng, Uli Latukefu, Chin Han, Pierfrancesco Favino, Claudia Kim

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