Tea Leaf Nation

Netflix’s ‘Marco Polo’ Is Cross-Cultural Clunker

Chinese and Mongolian viewers feel the way Egyptians might while watching 'The Mummy.'


As a great cross-cultural epic, the new Netflix show Marco Polo, released on Dec. 12, could have been the hit Hollywood has been waiting for. The Venetian merchant Marco Polo himself cuts an ideal cultural go-between in the East-meets-West tale, in his writings often casting China under the Mongolian-run Yuan Dynasty in a positive, even nostalgic light. And with the figure of Kublai Khan, respected in China as well as Mongolia, the show’s producers managed to hit just the right sweet spot in what was often a blood-ridden collision of Mongolian and Chinese history. Whereas Genghis Khan had ravaged much of northern China in his conquerer’s arc through Asia, his grandson Kublai was a Sinophilic administrator who unified China, which under the Song Dynasty had been divided for more than 100 years. Indeed, Netflix hoped that Marco Polo’s sweeping account of trans-Asian intrigue, along with the show’s international cast and multi-country filming location, would help Netflix further expand its global empire. As John Fusco, one of the show’s executive producers, told the New York Times, “The journey of Marco Polo is the hero’s journey, one that all cultures across the globe can relate to.” But unfortunately for the global ambitions of its producers, the show makes the same facepalm-inspiring pitfalls of so many would-be cross-cultural films before it. This, combined with an uninspiring plot that plods along at the pace of a Venetian merchant’s road-weary mule, makes Marco Polo a remarkably forgettable epic.

In order to be able to relate to the show in the first place, people must be able to see it. That’s easier said than done for would-be viewers in Mongolia and China, the two countries whose histories are central to the show. Netflix now operates in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Latin America, so users in those countries who want to watch Marco Polo can simply open a Netflix account and easily stream the episodes. Although Netflix is preparing to launch in Asia, it hasn’t yet – meaning that Internet users in Mongolia must turn to the often poor quality alternatives on video sharing platforms such as Vimeo or Torrent. Some local TV stations in Mongolia are working to make the show more easily available, but so far to no avail. “Our channel MongolTV is trying hard to acquire the rights to broadcast it here,” Lkhagva Erdene, an executive news producer at the private broadcaster, told Foreign Policy. “We met the production team in Singapore but they don’t hold the Asia rights.”

Then there’s the problem of language. With the exception of a meager smattering of (often poorly pronounced) Chinese, Farsi, and Mongolian, the dialogue in Marco Polo is conducted in English. Netflix offers English, French, German, and Spanish audio and subtitles — but no Mongolian, and not even Chinese, the most-spoken language in the world next to English.

The colonial echoes in this irony — that American film-makers would hail a film as cross-cultural while neglecting to make it either available or understandable in the countries whose histories they were borrowing – have not been lost on viewers abroad. In one popular online comment, a Chinese user on microblogging platform Weibo observed, perhaps only half-jokingly, that “these subtitles are in the languages of the Eight Allied Powers” – the eight Western nations including the United States, England, France, and Germany (though not Spain) that intervened in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 and razed the beautiful Summer Palace near Beijing, an event which is still remembered with great bitterness in China. Another user in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan wrote, “When I first started watching and saw that the characters were all speaking English, I felt unaccustomed to this. It is,” she added, “after all, about China’s Yuan Dynasty.”

Marco Polo’s producers may have hailed the international character of the cast, with more than 1,500 cast and crew members from 28 countries, but that group includes only a token presence of Mongolian talent. Lkhagva told Foreign Policy that “expectations got built up” when Mongolians learned that a Mongolian actor and producer, Amarsaikhan Baljinnyam, who starred in the 2011 Mongolian Academy Award-winning film Thief of the Mind, would play the role of Kublai Khan’s brother Ariq Böke. “But with expectation comes disappointment,” said Lkhagva; Ariq dies in the second episode, leaving the remaining eight episodes with no major Mongolian actor in a show ostensibly about the historical pinnacle of Mongolian power. Shirchin Bataar, a Mongolian blogger who lives in San Francisco and takes classes at Stanford University, told FP that while he enjoyed the film as a drama, the lack of Mongolian actors also bothered him. “Kublai Khan’s face was not Mongolian,” he said. “It was a bit odd for me.”

The landscape wasn’t Mongolian either. The show was primarily filmed in Italy, Kazakhstan, and Malaysia, instead of Mongolia or China. Kazakh newspaper Astana Times reported on Oct. 8 that the show’s filming, with its $90 million budget, had been a boon for Kazakhstan’s domestic film industry. That’s a boost that the Mongolian film industry, which suffered after the state-directed cinema network shut down after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, could surely have used.

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. The fictional Marco Polo (who in the film has been trained in kung fu) heroically saves Kublai from ninja-like assassins, provides crucial intelligence to the Khan in the face of his brother Ariq’s treachery – even though, historically speaking, Ariq died when Marco Polo was 12 — and wins the admiration of damsel-in-distress Princess Kokachin.

The detours from the historical record seemed clear to informed observers. O. Enkhtaivan, a Mongolian national who works in New York, told FP that he felt the show placed “too much emphasis on the West’s role.” Christopher Atwood, a professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University Bloomington, offered the same critique. “The role of Marco Polo himself, as right-hand man of Kublai Khan,” Atwood told FP, was a “huge exaggeration.” Mongolians and Chinese are more familiar with the history of this period than Americans, Atwood noted, meaning that historical inaccuracies would likely bother them more too. The effect, Atwood continued, is similar to how Americans might feel if China made a movie about American history in which Thomas Jefferson was portrayed giving sage advice to Abraham Lincoln. “That would drive Americans nuts,” he added. Referring to a prominent character with only a hazy degree of historical verisimilitude, one Chinese Weibo user commented, “For the general who wiped out the Southern Song to be a blind Chinese kung fu master in long robes — that takes a lot of imagination.” Another Chinese user wrote on Dec. 14 in a popular comment, “Watching this show, I finally understand how Egyptians must feel when they watch The Mummy.”

In fact, when it comes to panning Marco Polo, the Americans and the Chinese seem to agree. The series received only 5.8 out of 10 stars on Douban, a Chinese movie-rating website. While hardly a hit, that’s better than the abysmally low 27 percent the show got on U.S.-based website Rotten Tomatoes, which called the series an “all-around disappointment” and “less entertaining than a round of the game which shares its name.” (In the show’s defense, user reviews on Rotten Tomatoes have been much more forgiving.)

Yet despite the inaccuracies, a lack of Mongolian actors or settings, and a Netflix blackout, Mongolia itself has seemed generally to welcome Marco Polo. After all, it’s a rare Hollywood shout-out for a land-locked nation long overshadowed by its two expansive and culturally powerful neighbors, China and Russia. Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, a member of parliament and minister of culture, sports, and tourism for Mongolia, wrote on Dec. 12 on her Twitter account that she had already watched all the show’s episodes, commenting enthusiastically that she “didn’t notice how time flew by.” And Zandaakhuu Enkhbold, the Chairman of Mongolia’s parliament, wrote on his Facebook page on Dec. 12 that Marco Polo was a “great show.”

Bolor Lkhaajav contributed research.

Netflix/Fair Use

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr