Before making its much-anticipated debut on the streaming network, Marco Polo was accused of being Netflix’s wannabe version of HBO’s critically-acclaimed fantasy series, Game of Thrones. The series, set in 13th century Mongolia, follows the young Marco Polo’s time in the court of Kublai Khan, emperor of the Mongols and conqueror of China.
With all due respect to those who felt that Marco Polo is a weak or inferior attempt by Netflix of trying to challenge Game of Thrones, but that statement is not only weak, but also very short-sighted as well.
While Game Of Thrones is one of the best series to grace cable in a very long time, and deserves all the praise and accolades it rightfully deserves, Marco Polo is based on fact not fiction first and foremost and second Marco Polo envelopes you in its own violent and brutal world of intrigue, sex and politics.
So based on that, since when did GOT get the exclusive trademark to any series having graphic gore, sex and violence? Once again, Marco Polo was based on one of history’s most feared armies and conquerors, who ruled over an empire that stretched from the Pacific to the edge of eastern Europe, and as far south as the Black Sea.
It would be an insult to try to compare and nit-pick Marco Polo to Game of Thrones, as both are entities that stand out individually and have great casts, but I will say that MP is more of an amalgam of Showtime’s Tudors mixed with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Jet Li’s Hero, Zhang Yimou’s wuxia art-house classic House of Flying Daggers and Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai.
Bottom line is that if you’re into period dramas mixed with martial arts films, Marco Polo will appeal to your inner Bruce Lee.
In terms of cast, Marco Polo is the type of series one can fall in love with immediately, thanks to the solid portrayal of the young, puppy-eyed Polo played by Italian newcomer Lorenzo Richelmy, veteran English actor Benedict Wong’s (Covert Affairs) spot-on take on the indomitable Kublai Khan, veteran Chinese actress Joan Chen (Twin Peaks) as the steely Empress Chabi, Kublai’s wife draws you in.
The supporting cast of Marco Polo is also formidable as well with veteran Hollywood actors such as Rick Yune (Die Another Day, Fast and the Furious, Olympus Has Fallen) as Mongol warlord Kaidu, Zhu Zhu (Cloud Atlas) as Kokachin, the Blue Princess of Bayaut, Tom Wu (Batman Begins, Shanghai Knights) Polo’s blind sifu—martial arts instructor in Chinese—Hundred Eyes and Olivia Cheng as Kublai’s concubine (Arrow, Supernatural).
Additional cast members such as Australian actor Remy Hii(Neighbours) as Kublai’s Chinese-educated, self-conscious and vain Prince Jingim, Mahesh Jadu ( I, Frankenstein) as the corrupt and scheming minister of finance, Uli Latukefu as Kublai’s bastard son Byamba, Chin Han (2012, Contagion, The Dark Knight) as arrogant Song Emperor—commonly mocked as “The Cricket Emperor”, Amr Waked (Syriana, Lucy) as Kublai’s trusted counsel, Claudia Kim (Avengers: Age of Ultron) as Kaidu’s daughter and Mongol princess Khutulun and Pierfrancesco Favino as Marco’s father, Niccolo, who leaves him in Khan’s court round out an impressive cast.
Aside from some of the nudity and violent scenes in it, Marco Polo stands out in terms of cinematography in ranging from the dry and brutal Mongolian desert storms to the calm and serene Chinese temple gardens, most notably during the ongoing power struggle between Sidao and the Empress Dowager, MP is a beautiful and mesmerizing period fantasy geared towards your inner Asia-phile.
What is often lost in the history books is how the Mongols were able to successfully conquer a majority of the known world thanks to Polo introducing them to the European siege machine—the trebuchet—which enabled Kublai to finally conquer Xiangyang—and all of China—after being denied by the Song for over 80 years.
Another thing that is lost in Western history—and as a fellow lover of Asian history and someone who studied East Asian Studies in high school—is that while many Western audiences are familiar with the conquests of Alexander the Great, Kublai Khan and the Mongolians ruled over an empire five times the size of Alexander, are not well-known to Westerners—except as the main villains in Disney’s Mulan.
The Mongolians were the first to successfully conquer and unite all of China under the Yuan Dynasty, as they set up their new capital—Dadu or Khanbaliq—in what is now known as present-day city of Beijing—as a base to rule an empire that reached as far east as Korea, far south as Burma and India and as far west as the Black Sea that reached into Eastern Europe and present-day Turkey and Russia.
Lastly, Western history often fails to talk much of the trading on the Silk Road and the blending of many religions such as Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity that were openly tolerated under the Mongols, and is featured prominently in Polo. Perhaps no other empire in human history had a diverse group of subjects as that of the Khan in which Persians, ethnic Chinese, Mongolians and Indians all fought for the Mongol cause.
While Marco Polo may not have the name recognition and star power such as Game of Thrones, it certainly has its own unique brand of richness, real-life history and drama that lends it a special gravitas all it’s own.
For fans of fantasy, history and martial arts, Marco Polo is not to be missed, as it offers a unique and rare look into one of history’s most overlooked empires in the Mongolians and one of the most interesting figures in history in Polo and one of the brutal and savage rulers ever in Kubali, as far as I’m concerned, there is no need to compare Marco Polo to Game Of Thrones. Those who do can keep all of their fantasy animated fire-breathing dragons to themselves.
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