Park Chan-wook’s ‘The Sympathizer’ Confronts Hollywood’s History of the Vietnam War

In this satire from HBO and A24, Robert Downey Jr. plays four (!) different characters: a CIA operative, a college professor, a conservative politician, and an eccentric Hollywood director (sometimes all at once).

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All wars are fought twice
The first time on the battlefield
the second time in memory

These three lines of text come from a quote in Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, written by Vietnamese American author Viet Thanh Nguyen. This idea of a twice-fought conflict serves as the basis for the nonfiction book, which examines war, memory, and identity. Nguyen focuses on the Vietnam War—or the American War, as he notes that others call it—as a model in which to examine the problems that stem from how we remember war, the challenges and contradictions in how their stories are told, and who gets to tell them. The three lines of text are projected on-screen in the opening moments of the HBO adaptation of Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer, a story that explores these concepts through the recollections of a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist spy during the waning days of the Vietnam War and in his new life as a refugee in Los Angeles.

The Sympathizer, which premieres on HBO on Sunday, follows our nameless protagonist—known only as the Captain (Hoa Xuande)—as he confesses his experiences as a North Vietnamese double agent from the confines of a reeducation camp somewhere in Vietnam. Like the Captain himself, the seven-episode miniseries contains many faces: It is at once a harrowing depiction of the loss of life in Vietnam, an immigrant story, an espionage thriller, and a biting satire of decades of Hollywood portrayals of a war that have almost always been positioned from an American point of view. As the Captain continues his espionage work in the U.S. even after the fall of Saigon, following the South Vietnamese General (Toan Le) to California to report back on his aspirations to one day reclaim their homeland, The Sympathizer widens its perspective of the war through the Captain’s blue-green eyes. The miniseries manages to capture much of the sharp wit of its source material in an adaptation that is often as funny as it is exhilarating, but its unevenness throughout the season dulls some of the finer edges of Ngyuen’s masterful work in the process.

The A24 coproduction is led by showrunners Don McKellar and Park Chan-wook (Decision to Leave, Oldboy), the latter of whom helms the first three episodes before directors Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Two Popes) and Marc Munden (Help, Utopia) finish off the remainder of the series. Park’s imprint is all over his three-episode block, with his distinct cinematic flair and particular brand of absurdist humor setting the tone for the show early and often. Some of the show’s funniest moments early on derive from the physical comedy of a drunken bar fight occurring in the background of an urgent conversation, or the wide-angled portrayal of an assassination attempt gone awry. There’s a wonderful bit of interplay between Park and Ngyuen’s works in effect in this adaptation: Park’s twisted and spectacular Oldboy originally served as an influence on Ngyuen’s novel—the author inspired (and disturbed) by Park’s subversive revenge tale, released in 2003—and now the Korean filmmaker is one of the key creative visions bringing The Sympathizer to the screen.

Park is thus the natural fit to establish the pace of the miniseries, with the Captain perfectly aligning with the type of protagonist he often likes to explore in his films. As the director told The New Yorker: “I am drawn to the character who acts on their resolve, but then, having arrived at their destination, finds that they have arrived at a completely different place than they had intended.”

That Park’s directorial absence is so pronounced in the back half of the season is less of a criticism of his replacements than it is the product of a distinctive auteur handing over the reins to other filmmakers, with some of the show’s most bizarre quirks fading away by the end of the series. However, one of Park’s ideas has an outsized presence across The Sympathizer’s duration, for better or worse: casting Robert Downey Jr. in four different roles.

Downey—covered in some combination of heavy makeup, prosthetics, or colored contacts (sometimes all at once)—plays a CIA operative, a college professor, a conservative politician, and an eccentric Hollywood director (sometimes all at once). Each figure serves as either a mentor or employer to the Captain at some point, with the protagonist’s wildly-varied work experience taking him from the South Vietnamese secret police’s interrogation rooms to the Hollywood set of a movie that resembles Apocalypse Now. Downey’s characters are all white American men who together form one unified satire of the American imperialist systems of power. As clever of a conceit as this may be, and as entertaining as Downey’s various performances in The Sympathizer are, the Oscar-winning actor is also a distracting fixture whose scene-chewing too often draws attention away from his scene partners and the story itself.

Downey, who serves as an executive producer on the series with his wife Susan, is not the only starry name in the cast—just the only one whose roles seem to multiply as the season progresses. Sandra Oh, John Cho, and David Duchovny all appear in supporting roles, with the latter two making hilarious cameos as actors in the episode that spoofs the Hollywood production. But it’s Xuande, in the leading role of the Captain, who is perhaps most deserving of praise. For a little-known Australian Vietnamese actor, whose previous credits include ABC’s Ronny Chieng: International Student and the unfortunate live-action remake of Cowboy Bebop, to be surrounded by so many big names, The Sympathizer features Xuande’s Captain in just about every scene, his narration frequently providing the transitions in between. Xuande manages to convey the complexities of the character like a veteran thespian, showcasing the Captain’s charisma and wide range of emotions while his dual life progressively takes a toll on him. As the war begins to move on from the violence of the battlefield to become the fresh scars of a living memory, the Captain struggles to weigh his shifting ideals and sense of morality against his conflicting loyalties.

The Sympathizer doesn’t reach the same heights as its Pulitzer Prize-winning source material, its ambitious appetite perhaps too large to be satiated over the course of just seven episodes. But the miniseries is still a worthy adaptation of a challenging text, injecting enough of its own voice and style to achieve one of the novel’s primary goals of evolving the conversation around the Vietnam War in mainstream media.

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