HBO Spy Thriller The Sympathizer Is Audacious, Ambitious, Brilliant Television

6 minute read

When you hear that Hollywood is adapting a book like Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, you worry. Published to raves in 2015, the searing debut novel set in the immediate aftermath of what Americans call the Vietnam War—but that, as Nguyen and the new HBO series both remind us, Vietnamese know as the American War—won a Pulitzer for what the committee described as “a layered immigrant tale told in the wry, confessional voice of a ‘man of two minds’—and two countries.” It’s a psychological thriller, a war story, a political satire, a cri de coeur, and an investigation of identity, sifted through a mesh of framing devices and unfolding largely within the fractured interiority of a man who has yet to discover who he is or what he believes.

How lucky we are, then, that the adaptation was entrusted to Park Chan-wook. The South Korean filmmaker behind international hits including Oldboy, The Handmaiden, and Decision to Leave has spent decades making movies that commingle beauty and ugliness, genre tropes and literary layers, grindhouse depravity and arthouse imagination to profound effect. He also, in 2018, directed a slow-burning BBC-AMC adaptation of the John le Carré spy thriller The Little Drummer Girl. Working alongside co-showrunner Don McKellar (of the underrated Canadian series Sensitive Skin), Park has crafted a vibrant, faithful yet often audacious Sympathizer, premiering April 14, that matches executive producer Nguyen’s brilliant novel in both ambition and execution.

The Sympathizer
Hoa Xuande, left, and Toan Le in The SympathizerHopper Stone—HBO

While the story begins months before the fall of Saigon in 1975, we first encounter a protagonist known only as the Captain (Hoa Xuande, spectacular) in a communist reeducation camp, much later, delivering a fresh rewrite of his confession to Vietnam’s new leadership. From his position in the South Vietnamese secret police, working closely with the CIA, the Captain—a communist sympathizer—spied on counter-revolutionary activities for the Viet Cong. “Comrade, everything I did was to advance the cause,” he insists to the camp’s brusque commandant. Unimpressed, the man demands yet another draft: “Start at the cinema. And this time, remember every detail.”

This revision constitutes most of the series’ narrative, justifying Park and McKellar’s sporadic repurposing of Nguyen’s first-person prose as voiceover. Four months after witnessing the interrogation of a female communist spy—at a cinema that, in a nod to Vietnam’s consecutive struggles with France and the U.S., has just replaced the French softcore classic Emmanuelle with Charles Bronson’s vigilante thriller Death Wish—the Captain is helping his pompous boss, the General (Toan Le), organize an airborne escape from Saigon, amid much condescension and little real aid from their American allies. While the Captain would prefer to stay in Vietnam, shed his cover, and celebrate the VC victory, his childhood best friend turned handler Man (Duy Nguyen) orders him to follow and report back on the General in exile. Besides, only by securing a spot on the plane out of Saigon for the men’s third “blood brother,” Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan), a true Republic loyalist with a wife and baby, can the Captain and Man keep their old friend safe.

The Sympathizer
From left: Duy Nguyen, Fred Nguyen Khan, and Hoa Xuande in 'The Sympathizer'Hopper Stone—HBO

A picaresque of sorts, The Sympathizer works well as a small-screen serial. Once the Captain, the General, and Bon settle on the grimy outskirts of Los Angeles, the seven-part series gives us noirish episodes devoted to the bloody missions our hero carries out on behalf of his real and fake superiors. A workplace sitcom briefly coalesces around the Captain’s American alma mater, where he takes a job in an “Oriental Studies” department that is, unshockingly, quite Orientalist and soon hooks up with a wry co-worker (Sandra Oh) he keeps addressing as Ms. Mori even after they start sleeping together. The show’s high point is a darkly comic episode that brings the Captain to the set of The Hamlet, a thinly veiled sendup of Apocalypse Now, as a “cultural consultant” determined to faithfully represent his people—or at least get the Vietnamese characters some lines. Park and McKellar even nail the ending, preserving the painful journey to self-knowledge that Nguyen depicts without resorting to (much) torture porn.

Key to this odyssey is the Captain’s own cipher-like presence. The son of a Vietnamese woman and a French man who doesn’t claim him, he’s treated as an interloper by his countrymen and a curiosity by Americans. He can ingratiate himself to just about anyone by performing amenability, and espouse convincingly enough the divergent worldviews that split his homeland in two, which makes him an effective spy. But a sympathizer to all sides remains committed to nothing. The Captain can’t even be present and consistent enough to find a serious girlfriend. His only unshakeable allegiance is to Bon and Man, who once defended him from the bullying of classmates. Xuande, who has flown under the radar in shows like Netflix’s live-action Cowboy Bebop and Last King of the Cross on Paramount+, gives just the chameleonic performance that the character calls for, charismatic but opaque and always a bit remote.

Robert Downey Jr. as the Auteur in The SympathizerHopper Stone—HBO

His maximalist foil, throughout the series, is Robert Downey Jr. (also an executive producer). In a stroke of genius, Downey plays all of the white men who take the Captain under their wing. First he’s Claude, a CIA man with an eccentric, Hunter S. Thompson vibe. Then he’s the effeminate, culturally appropriating Oriental Studies chair as well as a congressman pandering to his new anti-communist, Vietnamese-refugee constituents. Downey has fun with every cartoonish persona, but he’s really in his element as the filmmaker behind The Hamlet, a swaggering Francis Ford Coppola stand-in referred to as the Auteur. This element of typically Parkian surrealism works on a few levels. Every aspect of American hegemony—politics, culture, scholarship, the security state—shares the same face. Downey’s multiple roles also feel like a rejoinder to Hollywood’s treatment of Asian characters and actors as interchangeable. As an extra in the Auteur’s film, Bon wears a series of disguises to die over and over again.

Like Xuande’s and Downey’s performances, and like Nguyen’s novel, this adaptation has depth. It conveys more than just one neat take-home message. From a visual style that cites the wild, earth-toned cinema of New Hollywood to the motifs of American rock music and Coca-Cola, Park, who directed three episodes, illustrates how the soft power of cultural imperialism can blur battle lines. The series laughs bitterly at the catch-22 of representation, dabbles in the antiwar absurdism of Vonnegut, gets to the root of identity politics by interrogating what it even means to identify as anything. At its most potent, The Sympathizer makes a distinction between the ideology a person embraces and how much skin they have in a deadly game. More important, it turns out, than what we’re willing to die for is why we might ultimately resolve to keep living.  

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