HBO’s The Sympathizer Is a Piercing Cold War Spy Thriller Grounded by Park Chan-wook

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HBO’s The Sympathizer Is a Piercing Cold War Spy Thriller Grounded by Park Chan-wook

Even when Western storytellers do end up writing about the senselessness of the United States’ campaign in the Vietnam War, the focus still largely remains on the American soldiers coming to terms with the moral void of their country’s brutal empire. Fictionalized accounts of the next steps for America’s allies, the South Vietnam forces, are rare; not everyone knows that Operation Frequent Wind relocated many Vietnamese citizens to the safety of the United States once the socialist North Vietnam won the war. Stories like The Sympathizer are rarer still; based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Vietnamese-American professor Viet Thanh Nguyen, the HBO miniseries follows a North Vietnamese spy, named only “the Captain” (Hoa Xuande) who’s been embedded in enemy territory throughout the war, and is ordered to continue his double life as an expatriate in Los Angeles after it finishes.

The points of interest don’t stop there—The Sympathizer is co-created and partly directed (three episodes out of seven) by Korean filmmaking maestro Park Chan-wook, making this his third non-Korean-language project after Stoker and the underrated John le Carre series The Little Drummer Girl (The Sympathizer is split between English and Vietnamese languages). If that wasn’t enough, we’ve also got Robert Downey Jr. in four separate roles—each a different shade of overbearing American leech on the Vietnamese expat experience, mining their trauma and community for their own political or cultural gain. 

It’s tough to imagine a more noteworthy pitch for a buzzy premiere, and The Sympathizer showcases its many talents with bold, slick expertise. For decades, Park’s direction has accommodated both dynamic, intensely-felt performances and tightly designed, eye-catching style. He navigates the precarious, panicked tension of Saigon’s final days before falling to the North Vietnamese in the first episode with rhythm and purpose, and we’re reminded how arresting characters can be under his watch. As the story moves from the explosive runways of Vietnam to American refugee camps and then to arid mid-’70s Los Angeles, the Captain’s allegiance to his friend and handler Man (Duy Nguyễn) in Vietnam is filtered through his observations of his fellow expatriates struggling to moor themselves in a country that would gladly leave the war it lost behind it—after all, it wasn’t their home. 

It’s here that Park’s direction leaves the greatest impact; depicting the abrupt reactions to being displaced and the bitter resentment (or in some cases, resolve) that the Vietnamese expats cling to, where frayed and live-wire characters have to fight to remain whole. (Park isn’t the only creative adapting Nguyen’s novel; The Sympathizer is co-created and written by Don McKellar.) 

Two supporting characters are fascinating to watch throughout, especially through the cautious, paranoid eyes of the Captain: his paratrooper friend Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan), who arrives in California grieving the loss of his family, and the formerly imposing General (Toan Le), who’s left in tatters after his side’s defeat. As the Captain dips in and out of the lives of these ostensible enemies, we watch the emotional process of staying stuck between two futures—the one that can be forged in a new country, and the one national ideology promised but failed to deliver.

It’s no surprise that the Captain is increasingly drawn to people who don’t exist in the same divided psychological headspace that he does (on top of being a double agent, the Captain is also mixed-Vietnamese-European). Working at a liberal arts college, sparks fly between him and the Japanese-American Sofia Mori (Sandra Oh); he’s attracted to and protective of the General’s daughter lana (Vy Le) as she moves towards showbiz; he’s at odds with Sonny (Alan Trong), a radical journalist from his college days in America, but compelled by the shared beliefs he can’t express to him. In his first major role, Xuande is stellar; he brings so much vulnerability and unease to his patriotic character that is forced to confront not just how he’s expected to compromise his Asian identity in America, but the limits of the nationalist cause he’s dedicated years to.

When Park hands over directing duties, things get a little sticky—the series midpoint focuses entirely on a Vietnam war film (directed by arrogant New Hollywood director Nico, one of Downey Jr.’s more convincing performances) that the Captain acts as cultural advisor on, and in his absence, it’s clear how much verve Park brought to the story. The episode works well as an isolated demonstration of the “Americanized” co-opting of Vietnamese pain and identity in Western culture, but director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) does not bring the goods, relying on impersonal handheld camerawork and inauthentic mimicking of ‘70s filmmaking to make its points.

Director Mark Munden (Utopia) gets us back on course for the final run, but minor missteps appear throughout the series. While Downey Jr. nails his two major roles, the enigmatic federal handler Claude and the aforementioned egotistic director (big Oliver Stone and John Milius energy here), his portrayal of an effeminate and Orientalist professor and a war veteran running for congress feel slight and gimmicky, and would be better served by a more compelling character actor. 

But in its closing hour, The Sympathizer becomes something intimate and piercing, looking into the souls of Vietnamese countrymen who feel bound to duty in an uncaring Western space. The winning sardonic humor of the series washes away into something sincere and probing, an ultra-specific look at identity that feels both searching and resolute, and a crisis to determine the Captain’s future. The talented writers and directors can only do so much—it works because of Hoa Xuande. 

The Sympathizer premieres Sunday, April 14th on HBO and streaming on Max. 

Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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