WAN: A second chance for “Marco Polo”

Despite the show’s shortcomings, a new season may prove culturally influential

Over winter break I discovered the Netflix series “Marco Polo.” A bit surprised by the Chinese and Mongolian setting, which is uncommon in American popular dramas, I finished all the episodes within two days. Initially I assumed the show would end up being just another expensive demonstration of the Orientalism rooted in American media. Therefore, I was not surprised to see unnecessary scenes of Asian female nudity and the typical plot of a “white savior” who used his intelligence to help the Kublai secure victory in the decisive battle with the Song Dynasty and eventually won the heart of an Asian beauty. To add more exoticism, there was even a blind, Taoist monk who was an expert in martial arts. Moreover, as if one character were not enough, important battles depicted in the show are fought using Kung Fu. 

The show scores only 27 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and it has received criticism from multiple commentators. An article in Foreign Policy commented, “It’s the predictable depiction of Marco Polo as a ‘white savior,’ whose bravery and intelligence saves the Khan and his court, among other wild historical inaccuracies, that has made the film such a celebrated bore.” Contrary to Netflix’s expectation, the show also failed to appeal to the international audience. The show only scores 5.8 out of 10 on Douban, a Chinese movie review website.

After reading many mostly negative reviews, I started to feel sorry for the cast and about the huge $90 million investment Netflix put into the show. A show produced by the company that specializes in streaming series fit for binge-watching should not be a hopeless failure, and it isn’t.

Many critics attack the show’s historical inaccuracies, saying that Marco Polo could not have attained such an important position in the Mongol world. Yet historical inaccuracies are almost always inevitable in cinema, such as in “Braveheart” and “300,” in which historical accuracy was sacrificed for the sake of improved artistic and dramatic effect. Despite many reviews criticizing the show as boring and sleep-inducing, there are quite a lot of impressive parts in the story. Each of the three main female characters, for example, has distinguished characteristics and a background story that break from the old “dragon lady” and “Madame Butterfly” archetypes of Asian women. The complicated character of Kublai, who is the autocratic ruler of the Mongolian empire, a brave warrior and an ordinary human being, is masterfully depicted.

The cast diligently strived to preserve the epicness of the series. The costumes were designed by the Oscar-winning Timmy Yip who thoroughly researched to represent the authentic styles in 13th century Venice and China. The picturesque landscape, the exquisite Chinese garden and the grand-scale war scenes are outstanding relative to other works. The music, composed by Daniele Luppi, Peter Nashel and Eric V. Hachikian, features both Mongolian and Chinese styles and is nothing like the stereotypical “Asian riff” in earlier “east-meets-west” movies.

These exceptional qualities make Marco Polo a remarkable breakthrough for Hollywood. Although the ancient dynasties of China have often been the settings of many popular Chinese history shows, they are rarely favored by American media. Even among the many dynasties of China, the Mongolian-ruled Yuan Dynasty was still underrepresented. Chinese entertainment media has given much more preference to the Song, Ming and Qing Dynasties. While the Yuan Dynasty connects the Song and the Ming chronologically, and Kublai is a highly regarded historical figure by both Mongolians and Chinese, this period is still overlooked by most producers. This might be due to the complicated feelings that some Chinese audiences have about the Yuan’s destruction of the culturally flourishing Song Dynasty, which was ruled by the Han Chinese, the largest ethnic group in China. The Mongolian entertainment industry, on the other hand, does not possess the cultural influence that American and Chinese industry have. As a result, the expansive Mongolian empire is regrettably neglected.

Putting a spotlight on the Yuan Dynasty by depicting the warfare and plots in its history through the eyes of a Western outsider is an intriguing yet challenging idea with great potential. As Netflix has renewed the show, it might prove itself to be a masterwork.

Sasha Wan is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at s.wan@cavalierdaily.com

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