Seven hundred years ago, a native son of Venice, Italy, returned home. His name was Marco Polo.
Little, if anything, would have been known of his travels had Marco Polo not been swept up in a war raging between Venice and Genoa. In 1298 at the age of 44, Marco Polo was captured and thrown into a Genoese jail with a man called Rustichello – a writer of romantic fiction.
One could imagine Rustichello’s stunned disbelief as Marco Polo started relating his adventures – adventures that even Rustichello could not have concocted himself. Marco Polo told Rustichello that before coming back to Italy, he had spent 20 years in China as a personal aide to the mighty Kublai Khan.
Rustichello then wrote “The Travels of Marco Polo” that made the Venetian a celebrity, though many readers at the time considered it as fiction.
Global streaming giant Netflix’s “Marco Polo”, created by John Fusco, is set in the 13th century court of Kublai Khan.
While “Marco Polo” has not received raving reviews by Western critics, it however has grown a fan base in Asia over the past two seasons.
It is a Netflix original series that aims to draw in more viewers from Asia – not excluding Cambodia – in a binge of martial arts and gory battle scenes in HD format.
Netflix was launched in Cambodia in January 2016, and there are strong indications that the global giant would be streaming more content with Asian actors, if it is to survive in Southeast Asia and compete with other OTT (over-the-top) streaming services, like Malaysia’s iFlix and Singapore’s HOOQ.
While “Marco Polo” is based on actual characters in history, the events are highly fictionalised. It starts with Marco Polo (Lorenzo Richelmy) as a young explorer, who joins his estranged merchant father Niccolo Polo (Pierfrancesco Favino) and uncle Maffeo Polo (Corrado Invernizzi) on the Silk Road.
When the three reach Kublai Khan’s court in Mongolia, Niccolo abandons his son in Kublai’s palace in Karakorum to gain favour from the Great Khan (Benedict Wong), in the name of trade.
Marco Polo is enslaved to Kublai Khan’s court as he is seen as a master of words and someone with a keen sense of observation that could help the Great Khan and other court officials make critical decisions on gaining global power.
During his enslavement, Marco Polo is also trained in martial arts by a blind Taoist monk, Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu). Hundred Eyes is a master in the Wu Tang sword style and the kung fu master and takes it upon himself to mentor Marco Polo.
The plot of “Marco Polo” follows several characters as Kublai Khan wages war to expand his Mongolian empire through the south of China and eventually to the West.
Marco Polo is no amateur production. Filmed in Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Venice, Marco Polo captures the beautiful backdrop of Asia with the viewer taken back to 13th century Mongolia. Reports put the season’s price tag at a whopping $90 million.
If cinematic photography is not enough of a draw, the series has amazing action and stunts, like fighting on horseback to kung fu masters displaying their superbly honed skills. There are also raunchy sex scenes with concubines, with nothing more than a hair clip, taking on a room full of men in a full-on orgy.
Many critics have argued that “Marco Polo” is riddled with historical inaccuracies and it would have been better if the tone had been set first to explain who was Kublai Khan and what was his legacy.
For many, like me, “Marco Polo” was a first time introduction to medieval Mongolia and I think the context had to explained first before the action and fighting scenes could begin.
While popular in Asia, “Marco Polo” was a flop for Western viewers and Netflix had to discontinue it after the end of the second season. But there is still hope that the streaming giant would revive it with a third season, if it wants to make inroads into Southeast Asia.