Only Park Chan-wook Could Pull Off a Sharp, Twisty Spy Thriller Like The Sympathizer

The Pulitzer Prize winning book gets a deliciously deranged adaptation.

Inverse Reviews

I always had the impression that people were tiptoeing around me when it came to the topic of the Vietnam War. My parents never wanted to talk about it, unless they were a few glasses of wine in at dinner. My teachers were intensely aware they had a Vietnamese kid in their class. But movies told me the truth. Or at least, they told me what Americans really think of a war that was never officially a U.S. war — that it was a military blunder at best, and an embarrassment at worst. But most of all, it was never anything more than a tragic backdrop to a tumultuous time in American history.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2015 novel The Sympathizer took a sledgehammer to that idea. Mordantly funny and gleefully acidic, the Pulitzer Prize winner tells the tale of a Communist double agent forced to flee to America with South Vietnamese refugees and spy on them for the North Vietnamese government. The book is frequently violent, often upsetting, and more than a little strange, but The Sympathizer never paints Vietnam with the same tragic brush that every work of art this side of Miss Saigon instinctively uses. Instead, it’s refreshingly unsentimental, even as it digs painfully into the inner turmoil and existential angst of its unnamed protagonist, a biracial Vietnamese man torn between two worlds.

Hoa Xuande and Robert Downey Jr. (in one of his many roles) in The Sympathizer.


Ironically, it took a Korean to perfectly nail such a singularly Vietnamese story. Oldboy director Park Chan-wook helms a twisty, stylish, and darkly thrilling seven-episode adaptation for HBO and A24, one that feels like a jolt of electricity to a genre you didn’t know needed it. Park, who directs three episodes and co-showruns the limited series with Last Night director Don McKellar, could not be more suited to adapt Nguyen’s novel, which Nguyen has said shares DNA with films like Park’s Oldboy. (One particularly perverse scene with a squid in The Sympathizer that is just straight up homage.) But rather than coast on adapting a story that itself remixed Park’s distinct tone, the director turns things up a notch.

The Sympathizer is bursting at the seams with style. If Park got his Hitchcock aspirations out of his system with Decision to Leave, he’s in full-force ‘70s exploitation movie mode with The Sympathizer. There are whip pans, sudden zooms, split diopters, and dozens of other techniques that show that, even decades into his career, Park can still innovate.

The opening scene alone has enough material to teach an entire film studies course. A grainy title card reads, “All wars are fought twice. The first time on the battlefield. The second in memory” before we’re dropped into a grimy prison cell with our unnamed protagonist (a terrific Hoa Xuande, in what is sure to be his breakout role), called only “The Captain,” who is forced to recount his story by his guards at a reeducation camp. “Start at the cinema,” they order him, before we’re taken to a movie theater in Saigon where the Secret Police and a CIA agent (Robert Downey Jr., in one of his multiple roles) are torturing a woman who has been outed as a Viet Cong spy. But wait, the scene suddenly pauses and rewinds, restarting and dropping us elsewhere in The Captain’s life before beginning again.

It’s this kind of unapologetically stylish and metatextual approach that makes watching The Sympathizer feel like a revolution. Nguyen’s acrobatic prose and unreliable narration felt like it was reinventing the language of a genre. What Park is doing with his adaptation isn’t particularly new, per se, but it feels new, perhaps because (at the risk of getting sentimental) we’ve never seen a Vietnamese protagonist in a Vietnamese story that’s told with the same immaculate style and verve as a ‘70s paranoid thriller. It’s showy, splashy, and not weighed down with all the accumulated generational trauma of the Vietnam War.

Hua Xuande, Fred Nguyen Khan, and Duy Nguyễn as three best friends with secrets among them.


That’s not to say The Sympathizer ignores the terrible events during and surrounding the war — far from it. The Sympathizer is a brutal show, both physically and mentally, with The Captain frequently wracked with guilt for his actions against his countrymen. Park constantly plays up the internal dissonance of The Captain, who calls himself “the man of two faces,” intercutting scenes of sunny American vistas with horrifying death and bloodshed. The first torture scene sets the tone for The Captain’s turmoil: he’s constantly at odds with himself, committing to what he believes to be a greater cause only to realize how self-serving and selfish he really is.

This turmoil continues as The Captain is ordered by his handler and childhood friend Man (Duy Nguyễn) to accompany the South Vietnamese General (Toan Le) to the U.S. to continue spying for the Viet Cong even after the war ends. It’s a homecoming of sorts for The Captain, who returns to work at the California college where he studied — he even strikes up a workplace romance with Sandra Oh’s Ms. Mori — but his time there is steeped in unhappiness and paranoia. His best friend Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan) is deeply suicidal, the General is convinced there is a mole in their group, and The Captain is buffeted on all sides by the demands from his various white male superiors — all played by Robert Downey Jr. with increasing levels of ridiculousness. Downey Jr. is obviously relishing playing characters that threaten to be stereotypes (there’s one lisp he puts on that feels slightly dangerous), but it’s a wild casting swing that works for such an absurd and twisty show as The Sympathizer.

Sandra Oh lends star power as the acerbic Ms. Mori.


Downey Jr. aside, the supporting cast is fantastic, with Fred Nguyen Khan and Duy Nguyễn particular standouts as The Captain’s childhood friends who stand on opposite ideological sides (with Khan’s desolate Bon totally ignorant of his two friends’ secret agendas, at that). Le lends an emasculated sadness and gravitas to The General, who unquestionably believes in The Captain’s loyalty, even as the Captain secretly considers him a “clown.” And Sandra Oh is delightfully sharp and cool as Ms. Mori, The Captain’s love interest and his one ally in a majority-white department. But this series belongs to Hoa Xuande, who feels like he’s on the cusp of stardom with the central role. Xuande gives a charismatic, slippery, and, fittingly, sympathetic performance as The Captain, and gamely shoulders the show’s hefty themes of navigating a cultural and spiritual limbo.

The Sympathizer, through its twisty, weaving narrative and agile juggling of genres, is like no other show on TV. It’s a thriller, it’s a dark comedy, it’s even at turns a satire (there is one brief sojourn into a Hollywood production that feels particularly potent). By remixing so many familiar visual styles in a story both familiar and unfamiliar, The Sympathizer handily makes the case as the best show this year. And that’s not just on the strength of its source material. Park infuses the show with a barely-contained rage that Nguyen only started to really explore in his sequel. It’s an anger that drives the momentum of a rather unconventional spy series — anger at the imperialistic forces that have torn a country asunder, anger at how war can warp and twist people, anger at being subject to the whims of people who are paternal at best, bigoted at worst. Better to be angry than to stew in the tragedy and trauma of a war that has become shorthand for a mistake.

The Sympathizer premieres April 14 on HBO and Max.

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