Does Marco Polo drama move Netflix a step closer to China?

Zhu zhu

Zhu is the Venetian’s love interest

Netflix this month agreed with The Weinstein Company to renew the big-budget TV show Marco Polo for a second 10-episode season. The move is further evidence of global media firms’ growing interest in China-related content. In its first season Weinstein produced a veritable east-meets-west mélange that followed the experiences of the Italian explorer at the thirteenth century court of the Mongol warlord and Chinese emperor, Kublai Khan.

Few Westerners know anything about this period of history, which evidently gave the producers a lot of dramatic licence to ‘fictionalise’ Polo’s adventures (or, perhaps, compound an existing fiction: academics debate whether he really visited China). The result is akin to Rome, the successful HBO drama that incorporated historical characters while adding hefty dashes of sex and violence to drive viewership. In the case of Marco Polo Kublai Khan’s harem offers some of the spicier footage, while there are copious opportunities for battle scenes, given the Mongol warlord is seeking to conquer the remnants of the Song Dynasty in the south. This being China there are the obligatory lashings of kungfu too. Indeed, as far as WiC knows, Weinstein’s team may be the first to combine a kungfu fight with full nudity (the scene in question sees the kick-ass concubine of the late Song emperor kill three guards while naked).

The show is worth viewing if for no other reason than for its stunning scenery, which in some episodes features sections of the Silk Road. The drama is also unusual – for an English language production – in that virtually the entire cast is ethnically Chinese, with the exception of the actor playing Marco Polo. Among the better known members of the cast is Joan Chen, who shot to prominence for her performance in Bernardo Bertolucci’s award-winning 1987 film The Last Emperor. She plays Kublai’s empress. Marco Polo’s elusive love interest, meanwhile, is Zhu Zhu, a Beijing-born actress who stars as a Mongol princess. Zhu – whose grandfather was a major general in the People’s Liberation Army – has appeared in several Hollywood movies including Cloud Atlas and to WiC’s ear is the mainland Chinese starlet most at ease speaking English.

The show’s first season cost Netflix $90 million. The New York Times reckons that made it one of the most expensive TV dramas ever made, topped only by Game of Thrones. The UK’s Observer newspaper adds that thanks to the exquisite sets and the costumes by Tim Yip (who won an Oscar for his designs in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) Marco Polo is one of “the most visually-striking TV [shows] on any platform”.

While Marco Polo was available to Netflix subscribers in the US last year, it has only just become watchable in Hong Kong as part of the media firm’s expansion of its international service this month.

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