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The Sympathizer Review | Park Chan-wook’s Winding Odyssey About Vietnam


The Sympathizer Review | Park Chan-wook's Winding Odyssey About Vietnam


Summary

  • Hoa Xuande and Robert Downey Jr. shine in a complex tale of duplicity and guilt.
  • Park Chan-wook’s stylish directing (with Marc Munden in later episodes) elevates a winding, overly complex narrative.
  • The show’s exploration of Vietnam, the fall of Saigon, and the country’s national identity makes for a fascinating perspective.



South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook remains true to form in his fascinating but convoluted adaptation of The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel. The seven-episode HBO limited series is a winding odyssey in duality. Set during and after the Vietnam War, the protagonist, a double agent anonymously referred to as the “Captain,” navigates duplicity, treachery, and gnawing guilt in a darkly comic tale with harrowing emotional turns. Park’s stylish visuals and superb cast, including a chameleon-like performance from Robert Downey Jr. in multiple roles, lift an overly complex narrative with intermittent pacing issues.


The brilliant pilot, “Death Wish,” introduces the Captain (Hoa Xuande) as a political prisoner in a late ’70s Vietnamese re-education camp. He’s forced to write a confession that begins a flashback structure vital to the labyrinthine narrative. The biracial, blue-eyed Captain, the product of a Vietnamese mother and French father, begins by recounting his time as a Viet Cong communist infiltrator before the calamitous fall of Saigon in 1975. He was a Captain in South Vietnam’s secret police and a direct subordinate to its vain General (Toan Le). He insinuates himself into the General’s personal life and clandestinely reports government secrets.

The Captain’s best friends since childhood, Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan), a heroic South Vietnam airborne officer with a new wife and baby, and Man (Duy Nguyễn), a dentist, jokingly refer to themselves in French as the Three Musketeers. Bon doesn’t have a clue that the Captain and Man are both hiding their true selves. Saigon collectively frets as the North’s troops are within striking distance. But the Captain has a more immediate problem. One of his operatives (Kayli Tran) has been caught with vital information he supplied her.



The Captain and Vietnam Have Identity Crises

The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer

3.5/5

Release Date
April 14, 2024

Seasons
1

Streaming Service(s)
Max

Pros

  • Hoa Xuande and Robert Downey Jr. are great in a twisty tale.
  • Park Chan-wook masterfully directs the first three episodes.
  • The show’s study of Vietnam, the fall of Saigon, and America’s role in it all is captivating.
Cons

  • The Sympathizer becomes convoluted, and its humor gets repetitive.

The Captain must attend her brutal interrogation at a movie theater. We’re introduced to Claude, the first of Downey Jr.’s wacky antagonists, and the General’s CIA handler who relishes pop music and torture. The Captain is terrified he’ll be discovered. His calculated insinuation into the General’s family life would have been for nothing. But the Captain’s extraordinary talents continue to serve him well in the most dire situations. He could never have predicted where his sworn duty would take him next.


The Sympathizer’s setting switches from Vietnam to Los Angeles as the story progresses. The Captain’s principles are tested as he explores different relationships while trying to remain undercover. How long can he play both sides, lie, and be a master manipulator? But where does he actually fit? This constant internal conflict echoes the overall theme of the show. The Captain’s fealty may not reflect his true desires in a world that’s not black and white.

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The Sympathizer’s perspective of the Vietnam War and its aftermath is the show’s greatest tenet. Park (Oldboy, Stoker, The Handmaiden) and co-writer Don McKellar (Last Night) employ gallows humor to great effect. You can’t help but laugh at the grim absurdity of the General, his family, and his fawning minions’ arrogance until the awful truth dawns. Their defeated exile after opulence and power is both just and pathetic. Conversely, the North’s success and use of the Captain as a willing pawn isn’t a glorious victory. He learns that extreme risk doesn’t equal a commensurate reward.


Robert Downey Jr.’s Four Antagonists

Each episode leaps back and forth in time as the Captain provides context and exposition. Flashbacks take place years, months, and literally hours before key events. You really have to pay attention. This is by no means a negative tactic, but does wear thin when some episodes run long. Park follows the novel’s progression but could have been more direct to serve fluidity. He also manipulates tempo with changes in frame rates. Park rewinds scenes to illustrate the Captain’s espionage efforts. The Sympathizer cannot be casually watched.


Downey Jr.’s hamming it up as various American a**holes serves several purposes. The characters reflect an ugly system that exploited the Vietnamese for gains that weren’t realized, or were downright catastrophic in the war’s case. The Captain sees these people in a specific light, hence their outlandish caricatures. Downey Jr. is clearly having a field day portraying the repulsive. He’s good as always, but the laughter honestly abates after the gimmick loses steam.

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The Sympathizer has superb production values across the board. The fall of Saigon will floor you. Scenes of the South Vietnamese elite racing to American airfields are absolutely riveting. Park brings a dramatic focus to the crushing losses faced during the violent escape of a city under siege. Everything after is an attempt to pick up the pieces of this historic collapse. Park, already a critical darling, vaults into Emmy’s contention by accurately capturing its devastating impact.


Vietnamese Life in America

The Sympathizer star Hoa Xuande as The Captain
HBO

Frankly, you never root for the Captain but understand what fuels his idealism. His actions were for a believed greater cause. The Vietnamese who fled to America had a vastly different life from what was expected. Their immigrant dreams faced a sobering reality. The Sympathizer depicts that transition with heartache, humor, and needed resilience.

The Sympathizer is a production of Team Downey, Rhombus Media, Cinetic Media, Moho Film, and A24. Episodes premiere Sunday nights on HBO and are available to stream immediately after on Max here. You can watch the trailer below.


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