May 14, 2024

CABLE | 'The Sympathizer' Betrays South Vietnam on HBO

"Hit me, comrade."
Hoa Xuande Park Chan-wook Don McKellar | The Sympathizer HBO
A24 / Rhombus Media
The unlikely international filmmaking pairing of Korean auteur Park Chan-wook and Toronto director Don McKellar adapt Vietnamese-American professor Việt Thanh Nguyễn's bestselling 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel The Sympathizer (aka Cảm tình viên) into dizzingly postmodern historical miniseries dissecting the complex political machinations in the immediate aftermath of a post-Vietnam War United States in the late-1970s.

Starring Hoa Xuande as the unnamed half-French, half-Vietnamese "The Captain," who narrates his twisty role as a Viet Cong communist double agent, his constant shifting of identities, allegiances, and loyalties layers our understanding of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. In his Eurasian role in charge of the South Vietnamese secret police, aid to the CIA, and a reluctant American refugee/immigrant informer, Xuande must constantly switch his performance to modulate against different scene partners fluidly.

Much has been made of Robert Downey Jr. (an executive producer) playing multiple roles of white American antagonists as a reference to how Asian and Vietnamese voices were often treated in war stories from the American perspective. No longer side characters or aids to pale-skinned colonialist heroes, the different Vietnamese roles offer a wide range of deeply political positions in reaction to their colonialist American counterparts with their own motivations for Vietnam after the war.

What's most thrilling about The Sympathizer's stylush small-screen adaptation is the challengingly nuanced treatment it gives the historical material from multiple points of view within the same character, refusing to sugarcoat any perspective. We see all sides and how the constant sense of betrayal permeates the psyche both in America and Vietnam. It remains a work of split identities.

The Sympathizer airs weekly on HBO and is available to stream on Crave in Canada (and on Max in the U.S.).

More | YVArcade / CBC / Inverse / Paste

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