Chaos Of Vietnam War And Its Aftermath In 'The Sympathizer'

Sympathy for the devil of Communism lands a South Vietnamese army captain in the purgatory of a double life.

He is the sympathizer of the title of an engrossing new limited series coming to HBO and Max on Sunday. But where exactly do his sympathies lie? 

The time is 1975, the place is Saigon and the city is bracing for the arrival of the Vietcong. 

As many of us remember, the drama’s final act was the mad frenzy to the airfields of desperate Vietnamese seeking to escape from the Communists on U.S. military aircraft where seats were scarce.

In “The Sympathizer,” the abandonment of Saigon by U.S. forces is seen through the eyes of the Vietnamese, primarily the eyes of the “Captain,” played by Hoa Xuande (above photo).



He is the aide-de-camp of a notorious and widely feared South Vietnamese general, but he is also an embedded spy for the Communists.

He is a zealot in support of the VC who believes deeply in the value of the cultural and political revolution that the Communists promise to bring with them in their conquest of the South.

But the Captain is emotionally torn. In the show, his inner conflict is symbolized by his two best friends -- one a South Vietnamese military man, and the other an embedded spy in the employ of the North, just like him.

The Captain is also conflicted in his feelings about America. He was educated there, speaks perfect English and has a taste for American popular culture, examples of which abound in Episode One of “The Sympathizer.”

Songs include Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” War’s “Low Rider” (also adopted as the theme song for the sitcom “George Lopez”) and at least two songs sung by Johnny Cash.

In one scene, a movie theater marquee undergoes a makeover. “Emmanuelle” is being taken down and replaced by Charles Bronson in “Death Wish.” 

“The Sympathizer” has an almost all-Asian cast, except for the noteworthy exception of Robert Downey Jr., who plays four parts, each one in distinct hair and makeup.

In Episode One, he is an unctuous, shadowy CIA agent working behind the scenes with Vietnamese military assets in Saigon.

Filmed in Thailand and other southeast Asian locations, “The Sympathizer” is a work of bravura filmmaking. 

Credit for its high quality goes primarily to renowned South Korean director Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy,” “The Handmaiden” and other films) -- creator, executive producer, writer, director (of Episodes 1-3) and co-showrunner of “The Sympathizer” (with Don McKellar).

The seven-episode series comes with a high pedigree. It is adapted from the 2015 novel, also titled “The Sympathizer,” by first-time author Viet Thanh Nguyen. 

The book became a bestseller and won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The author is also listed as an executive producer of the series.

In the HBO press material, “The Sympathizer” series is positioned as “an espionage thriller and cross-culture satire.” I have even seen it characterized as a “dark comedy.”

Perhaps these aspects become clearer in the show’s subsequent six episodes, but comedic or satiric elements -- dark or otherwise -- were not evident in Episode One.

The center of the show is the captain, who is caught between two worlds. By the end of Episode One, he is headed in directions he could not foresee.

This appears to be a recurring theme in Park’s movies. “I am drawn to the character who acts on their own resolve, but then, having arrived at their destination, finds that they have arrived at a completely different place than they had intended,” Park says in an interview in the current issue of The New Yorker.

“That’s essentially how life is, I think. And the tragedy is that we find out too late.”

“The Sympathizer” premieres Sunday, April 14, at 9 p.m. eastern on HBO and streaming on Max. 

Next story loading loading..