HomeAAPI Actors'The Sympathizer' highlights Vietnamese diaspora history

‘The Sympathizer’ highlights Vietnamese diaspora history

by Erin Chew

The first episode of a mini-series adaptation of The Sympathizer is airing tonight on HBO Max.

Those who have read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 novel, The Sympathizer, would be aware of his complex, deep and extremely clever mind. Based on the story of the Captain, a North Vietnam plant in the South Vietnam army, the story starts towards the end of the Vietnam War. The Captain is forced to flee to the United States with his general and while living within a community of South Vietnamese refugees, the Captain continues to secretly spy on the community and report back to the Viet Cong, struggling between his original loyalties and his new life.

The novel is well written and conveys the themes of Vietnam War history, including the aftermath which saw thousands of Vietnamese refugees settling in the United States. It highlights all the dramas which happen within the diaspora community with a focus on espionage and intrigue. So, it should not come as a surprise that this novel now has a series adaptation produced to air on HBO and streaming on MAX on April 14, 2024.

To unpack this story in episodic form, HBO boarded the talented legendary director from South Korea- Park Chan-wook (Old Boy, Decision to Leave, The Handmaiden), who took the helm of this project in the hopes of driving it to success. A bold expert in his craft, Park took some directorial risks to ensure audiences see each character as complex, layered and tinged with a lot of intrigue. He also wanted to ensure that there was cultural and historical accuracy.

“As a Korean, when I watch TV coming from America, there are times when I spot inaccuracies and awkward interpretations of different cultures and traditions. I usually can’t help myself and sigh critiquing how the show/film has not taken particular attention to detail and accuracy. For The Sympathizer, I wanted to make sure that when Vietnamese and general audiences watch the show, that it is culturally, linguistically and historically correct and that I wouldn’t feel embraced by inaccuracies. I like taking risks, but I am also aware of the importance of being true and accurate,” Park recently discussed in an interview with AsAmNews.

Park together with the leadership team behind the series, including showrunner Don McKellar (Last Night, Blindness) and executive producers Susan Downey (Robert Downey Jr.’s wife), Niv Fichman and Viet Thanh Nguyen himself sought help from an array of expert consultants on Vietnam history, culture and language to ensure each element from the show was correct. This included ensuring the Vietnam War scene sets and costumes were made with care and accuracy and that there was sensitivity given to North and South Vietnamese dialects when being used on the show.

In addition, the entire series, despite being a work of fiction is seen through the eyes of Vietnamese people, and this is significant. Over the decades, there has been a trend where Hollywood films and shows that depict war and conflict in Asia are constructed based on the white gaze, with a white/western savior always rescuing the day. The Sympathizer flips this and does so through the eyes of the Vietnamese diaspora, which gives it more depth and complexity, reflecting the real experiences of those who escaped from war and had to adapt to a new country.

This rings true for Hoa Xuande (Last King of the Cross, Cowboy Bebop), who is a Vietnamese Australian actor and plays the main protagonist of Captain on the series. Hoa was chosen to play this role after a worldwide audition call for this character. Having to bear a huge responsibility, Hoa did a lot of research, consultation and training to ensure he would do the novel, the series and the Vietnamese diaspora justice.

“It has been a privilege to be chosen to play the Captain, and I knew that this would be a heavy burden to take on, so I had to be prepared and execute the role to the best of my abilities,” Hoa told AsAmNews. “After reading the novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, I started to do a lot of internet searches on the history and watched many documentaries about the Vietnam War and the trauma inflicted upon the diaspora. It brought tears to my eyes to read and see the struggles and challenges the diaspora faced and still face today and I wanted to play my role well by ensuring I put the Vietnamese community and their voices at the center of my performance.”

Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy, Quiz Lady, Killing Eve), who plays the character Ms. Sofia Mori, gets entangled with the Captain and other important characters in the series. Playing a character who is Asian American, but not from the Vietnamese community, allowed her to reflect on her own identity and where she belonged in the United States as an Asian American. She felt that her character Ms. Sofia Mori is also going through this process.

Sandra Oh as Ms. Sofia Mori in “The Sympathizer” // HBO Max photo

“From my perspective, there is a moment in one of the later episodes in this series, when the Captain is speaking with American professors and senators at a major event. In essence he was treated with resentment, disdain and was looked down on and it is a stark reminder of the racism and how as Asians in Western countries we were not and in some ways still not seen as equals. This is why scenes like that are so important as it addresses issues around racism and the generational trauma our community has experienced. It is also a great reflection point for me and how I portrayed Sofia Mori. I want audiences to see her as an American who is coming to terms with her Asian identity and reconciling with the themes of belonging and adapting to her society and environment,” Oh told AsAmNews.

Putting all the serious themes aside, this series is intriguing and shrouded in mystery with its focal point being about espionage. This is the entertaining part of it all, as the Captain, Ms. Sofia Mori and other characters in the show get entangled in this world. For Vy Le, who plays the character Lana, who represents the second generation of the Vietnamese diaspora in the United States, making her acting debut in this role allowed her to learn and enjoy working in this espionage genre.

“For me, I came to the United States when I was nine years old, so I can personally identify with the character of Lana in this show is is basically the second generation,” Le sai. “She is young, has adapted well to American society and culture and doesn’t always agree with the views of her parents or truly understand the extent of the trauma of war as her parents generation did. I enjoyed playing Lana and weaving her into this series about espionage and spies. I think that is the fun point about this show is how each character that comes from a different generation of the Vietnamese community deals with this world. I learned so much about this genre and I hope to be able to do more in this genre.”

Toan Le (Big Foot, Visioneers), who plays the General, feels that the series needs to be looked upon as an entire package- one that talks about Vietnamese modern history in and outside of the country through the experiences and trauma from the community itself, and be immersed into the world of espionage, mystery and just the general weirdness (in a good way) in the series. Le stated that once it’s taken as a whole, is when audiences truly understand the intrigue of the Vietnamese story and experiences.

“Everyone needs to have a broader perspective when watching the show, because it is a story and a narrative that has never really been told before through the eyes of the Vietnamese people. Most films and shows we see in Hollywood, focuses only on the war and the battle, but doesn’t really connect the displaced community and how they adapted to new countries and societies. This show does that and it continues on with different generations and how they digest their lives ( to assimilate or stay the same) and how they adapt to a life where they still have to live with the demons and ghosts of their past,” Le stated.

An interesting aspect about The Sympathizer is that where the male characters are the center of the show, the female characters are more in the supporting cast, who empower the male characters but more importantly show their strength, resilience and how they are able to hold their own. For Oh, this was an important point to highlight, because it demonstrates that both Asian male and female-centered shows and films have the potential to be successful. They are no longer just side characters, side stories or stereotypes.

“As you know, I am a huge advocate for better representation and visibility of Asians on the big screen and on TV. In saying that, we should now be at a point where we ask ourselves about the stories we want to tell and share our cultural and identity experiences on the main stage. We can’t just sit idle and expect the mainstream networks and production companies to give us the opportunities. In The Sympathizer, where the Asian women are more the supporting cast, they hold the Asian men who play most of the main roles. This is important to understand, appreciate and learn from to ensure we see more content focused on our experiences told by our own eyes and perspectives,” Oh expressed.

For the Asian men in The Sympathizer, there are multiple portrayals, that show how they are brave and courageous, but also how they are vulnerable, prone to making mistakes. They grapple with their present lives, their past and the world of spies and espionage. These different angles show that Asian men are not just one-dimensional characters, as Hollywood and the Western media have tried to portray over the past century. They are not just awkward characters or side stories. This is a refreshing change for Fred Nguyen Khan (Fatherhood, Transplant) – who plays Bon on the show. Nguyen Khan, who is Vietnamese Canadian, stated that he has always been given audition roles where the Asian men were just a stereotype.

“I come from Montreal, Canada, and the roles I have been invited to audition for are just too stereotypical, and shows no complexity or layers. I feel as Asian men, we are constantly categorized as a certain type and it is those certain types that we can audition for as that is what considered as the norm. I have always had dreams of someday playing a James Bond villain, or as a hero who saves the world, but it is hard to always imagine these type of roles when they hardly exist. So, when I got the role as Bon, I was just elated as I could put all my energy to ensure I represent Asians and Asian men as complex, layered and three dimensional. We can be heroic, we can cry, be angry, scared and just be regular people,” Khan said.

For Hoa, the points Nguyen Khan made ring true for him and echoed similar sentiments as Nguyen Khan did. For Hoa, playing the Captain is his first major role in the United States, and he wanted to take care in representing Asian men in a positive light. At the same time, he wanted to balance this with ensuring he played the Captain as someone who is involved with espionage and is troubled by the ghosts and demons of his past. A multi-faceted character is a huge undertaking for an actor who has only recently made his international debut, but Hoa wanted to step up to this challenge and ensure he represented with pride.

“My career has primarily been in Australia, so that world is a lot smaller than say in the United States. In saying that, I have always been aware of how Asians are represented in film and TV and how Asian men get represented. I am proud to say that with The Sympathizer, Asians and Asian men are represented as real and true to the human experience. They do not need to validate their presence, and you can see how multi-faceted each character is as they interact with the Captain and with the world of spies and espionage.”

In addition to the aforementioned cast, The Sympathizer also includes Duy Nguyen (The Elevator, Ghosts) who plays Man; Alan Trong (Alita:Battle Angel, The Tomorrow War) as Sonny; Kieu Chinh (The Joy Luck Club, City of Angels) as the Major’s mother; VyVy Nguyen (Young Sheldon, Shaky Shivers) as the Major’s wife; Ky Duyen (The Rich Woman) as Madame, the General’s wife; Scott Ly (A Tourist’s Guide to Love, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War) as Gunner Dao and Robert Downey Jr. (Oppenheimer, Iron Man series, Sherlock Holmes, Avengers: End Game), playing several antagonist roles including Claude, a CIA agent who mentors the Captain, Niko – an auteur filmmaker, Professor Hammer and a Congressman among others.

Finally, in anticipation of the premiere of The Sympathizer debuting on Sunday, April 14 at 9 p.m. ET/PT, Max is teaming up with 626 Night Market to bring the show to life in Santa Monica, CA. Inspired by the themes and narrative of the limited series, the event will celebrate the intersection of culture, community, and storytelling on Saturday, April 13 and Sunday, April 14 from 1 p.m.–10 p.m. PT, where guests can immerse themselves in the vibrant world of Vietnamese cuisine, art, and entertainment.

All are encouraged to join the event which will be held at 1324 5th Street (lot 27), Santa Monica.

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.


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