HomeVietnamese AmericanReview: Why The Sympathizer is must-see TV

Review: Why The Sympathizer is must-see TV

By Jana Monji

Forty years after the fall of Saigon (30 April 1975), USC professor Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel, The Sympathizer was published and became, not only a best seller, but also won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Now South Korean film director Park Chan-wook (박찬욱) and Tony Award-winning (book for The Drowsy Chaperone) Canadian playwright/filmmaker Don McKellar have created an engrossing limited series produced by A24 and airing on HBO beginning 14 April 2024. This is a must-see for Asian Americans.

With a total of seven episodes, each drops to stream Sunday on HBO Max.

At the center, is the character only named by the rank he held before the fall, in a country that has ceased to exist, the Captain (Vietnamese Australian actor Hua Xuande).  Fans of Cowboy Bebop might recognize him as Shin/Lin, the twin siblings employed by the nemesis (Vicious) of the main character Spike in the 2021 live-action remake.

Here Xuande is the unfortunate product of a Vietnamese woman and a French Catholic priest, unwanted and unable to find a place in Vietnamese society under the French and never totally accepted by the Vietnamese. He has no siblings; he bears a self-inflicted scar that declares a blood brotherhood from age 14 with Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan) and Man (Duy Nguyễn). Unbeknownst to Bon, Man has become the Captain’s handler and both Man and the Captain are Communists. The Captain recalls, “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook.”

Before the fall of Saigon, the Captain was a member of the Secret Police and the attaché of the General (Toan Le).  He was also a valuable liaison between the General and the CIA operative Claude (Robert Downey Jr.) because the Captain attended college in the US and is fluent in American English.

Hoa Xuande in The Sympathizer
Hopper Stone/HBO. The Sympathizer stars Hoa Xuande

Yet at the start of the series, he is in a Vietnamese communist re-education camp, writing and re-writing his confession in solitary confinement. Throughout, he is remembering and editing and trying to make sense of his captivity within the regime that he had worked so hard and so diligently to bring to victory, even as he escaped with Bon and lived as a refugee in the US, helping the fallen general navigate this new world and becoming the pet of an Orientalist White professor (also Robert Downey Jr.) at Occidental College. The Captain is employed in a clerical position in the foreign language department at the college, under the Japanese American secretary Sofia Mori (Sandra Oh). He has a no-strings-attached affair with Mori, but that leads to other complications. 

Although later the Captain serves as a consultant on a film about Vietnam, his suggestions to draw out a more nuanced depiction of the war and the Vietnamese people are ignored and he almost dies on set in the Philippines. Ultimately, against orders, he returns to Vietnam and, as the first episode illustrates, ends up at the re-education camp. 

According to the Captain, “the worst and most dangerous vestige of the old regime is individualism” and in the US, he finds the temptation of individualism strong and because he is a man with two faces, who sympathizes with his supposed enemies, there are some things that he has “disremembered.” 

If you still think that all East and Southeast Asians look alike, this limited series will be especially troubling for you. There are a few characters who do look alike because they’re played by one actor (Downey). Downey continues in his slide from heroic rogue turned family man Tony Stark/Iron Man into characters of questionable morality. He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Rear Admiral Lewis Strauss, the man who tries to take down the titular hero in “Oppenheimer.” Here, with the help of wigs and makeup, he portrays a variety of slimy White men, and there’s even in a slightly surreal scene where these characters meet each other.

There are other moments that are surreal because in his confession, the Captain, much like Macbeth, remembers and sees those who have died. His Communist camp interrogator asks of the ghosts, “Are they literary symbols or genuine superstitious indulgences?”

Khan’s Bon is convincing by turns as a man almost buried alive in depression in the US, but somehow resurrected by the chance to kill for the cause. Le’s General, however, undergoes the most profound transformation, from a respected military man living in a villa, to a man struggling in his redefined status in exile, hoping to return to his homeland in glory. Throughout, Xuande is facile in depicting the Captain’s agreeableness, from being the aide/man servant to the General to being the good Asian American to the Occidental professor to being a good friend who betrays people who are neither good nor bad, just expendable. Although Xuande isn’t Eurasian, he wears bluish-green contacts to express the Captain’s mixed heritage. 

The limited series doesn’t strictly follow the novel. Asian Americans will recognize the significance of the egg metaphor and the need to expand the narrative of American history beyond an East Coast, often Anglo-centric narrative to include the West Coast and Asians Americans. The egg, however, isn’t given any particular significance in the novel.

There is something in the novel which makes more sense. In the novel, Mori sees the narrator as “a real sellout, a total white-wash” or “a rice cracker.” Yet she describes herself as “They think I’m a dainty little China doll with bound feet, a geisha who’s ready to please. But I don’t talk enough for them to love me, or at least I don’t talk the right way. I can’t put on the whole sukiyaki-and-sayonara show they love, the chopsticks in the hair kind of mumbo jumbo…” Although I am doubtful that a 46-year-old Nisei who doesn’t speak Japanese would use the word “gaijin” (外人、foreigner) to refer to WASPs as used in the novel–from my experience the word “hakujin” (white person 白人)would have been more likely, the limited series depicts Mori at a departmental social event in a kimono wearing what appear to be chopsticks in her hair. The Captain even mentions this. 

Granted, I am not a Nisei, and I am not from Gardena, although I currently live near there. My impression of Gardena Japanese Americans was from fellow college students I met when I left San Diego and lived in Orange County and other parts of Southern California. Moreover, I would not describe Oh as “dainty.” Seeing Oh’s Mori with chopsticks in her hair gave me a strong negative impression of her character, one that isn’t in the novel and one I’m not sure if the teleplay writers and costume designer (Danny Glicker) meant to convey this.   I’ve no doubt that the apparel that Downey’s professor wears at the same function (and even the suit he provides for the Captain) is mean to cultivate our derision and contempt for this professor.

Hoa Xuande, Duy Nguyen, Fred Nguyen Khan in The Sympathizer
Hopper Stone/HBO. The Sympathizer with Hoa Xuande, Duy Nguyen, Fred Nguyen Khan

I can’t speak to the scenes and dialogue in Vietnamese, and, according to The New Yorker, the production was filmed in Bangkok because the “Vietnamese government didn’t approve the production’s request to shoot there in time” and although a Vietnamese publisher had the novel translated into Vietnamese, the government hasn’t given permission to release the translation of the novel in Vietnam. Author Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in South Vietnam and his family did escape to the US after the fall of Saigon and they did live in a refugee camp before finally coming to California (San Jose) where they opened a Vietnamese grocery store. 

From the trailer, you’ll know that there’s torture depicted. The mysterious man masked by a burlap bag with only one eye showing you’ll see briefly in the trailer only appears at the end of the series. There is nudity and sexual situations, including a description of masturbation and the discreet though sensitive suggestion of rape; this limited series is meant for mature audiences. 

The Sympathizer limited series is a necessary reminder that while in the US, we call it the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese officially refer to it as the Resistance War against America to Save the Nation. The Vietnam War was, like the Korean War, a civil war, and it came at a time when the US had not quite faced its dilemma of anti-Asian racism. Although the series, like the book, delves into the absurdity of a variety of things (e.g. racism), it shows that even a war to find freedom and independence from imperialism, is a tragedy, pitting families and friends against each other.  Although a lot of the beautiful descriptive language in the novel is lost in the teleplay, The Sympathizer limited series is an intelligent, well-acted production and an important assertion of Southeast Asian history as well as West Coast and Asian American history. This is a must-see for Asian Americans, people interested in the Vietnam War and even people who fought in the war and the second half of the series runs and ends during May, Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

The limited series is written by Park and McKellar with other writers (Naomi Iizuka for Episode 2; Mark Richard, Episode 3; Maegan Houang, Episode 5; and Anchuli Felicia King, Episode 6). Park directs the first three episodes. Brazilian Fernando Meirelles (the Oscar-nominated 2002 City of God and the 2019 The Two Popes) directs Episode 4. English director Marc Munden (National Treasure) handles the last three episodes.

“The Sympathizer” premieres its first episode on HBO and Max on April 14 at 9 p.m. ET. The remaining episodes air weekly on Sundays.

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