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Television
Review
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‘The Sympathizer’, Park Chan-wook’s rewrite of the Vietnam War with a touch of black comedy

In his debut as showrunner, the director of ‘Oldboy’ directs a mini-series based on the recent Pulitzer Prize-winning book that shows the other side of the generation-defining U.S. armed conflict

Hoa Xuande, protagonista de 'El simpatizante'.
Laura Fernández

Between 1955 and 1975, the Communist government of North Vietnam and its allies in South Vietnam, known as the Viet Cong — supported by China and the Soviet Union — fought against the government of South Vietnam, whose primary ally was the United States. The 1975 fall of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, brought an end to a war that, for scholars of journalism, was the first in which public opinion played an essential role. On the other side of the world, U.S. citizens rose up against their country’s role in the conflict — often portrayed as inevitable amid Cold War posturing — unable to believe everything they read and saw on the news about what was happening there. At the end of the 1970s, as the hippie movement waned, the Vietnam War’s days were numbered. The protests had been a major factor, but not the only one.

The attrition of a war that was, from the beginning, fought with guerrilla tactics, earned the United States a defeat that the country cast as a victory — or at least, so it was seen in the context of U.S. public opinion, which had turned on the conflict as the populace’s children senselessly died for a cause that had nothing, many said, to do with them. The number of stories that have been written and filmed about this era is overwhelming. Francis Ford Coppola’s heavyweight Apocalypse Now was among the first, debuting just four years after the war ended. The movie brought with it a feeling that the world had given to U.S. fiction, leaving aside its history, a myth to which to return over and over. As in the real world, it played the good guy and the bad guy at the same time. And it did so from a singular point of view.

This explains the importance of the mini-series The Sympathizer (HBO Max), the first small-screen production by Park Chan-wook, the director and screenwriter of Oldboy, a movie that started the global craze for Korean film two decades before Bong Joon-hoo’s Parasite. Here, for what seems like the first time, the historic story is told from the opposing viewpoint, as in a mirror. And what it shows, for once, is Vietnam. And not life in the rice paddies, that setting that has become so abused by Hollywood, but rather, in the country’s cities. Cities with movie theaters, and premieres in those movie theaters, and bars, and beers that are drunk on their crowded terraces on the very day of the fall of Saigon because everything is, finally, coming to an end. This is to say, it shows a reality that had not previously existed in global fiction. And now, fortunately, it does.

An image from the series ‘The Sympathizer.’
An image from the series ‘The Sympathizer.’

Based on the novel of the same name by Viet Thanh Nguyen that won a Pulitzer in 2016, the mini-series version of The Sympathizer was co-written by Chan-wook and the Canadian Don McKellar. It follows the steps of an unreliable narrator, a Ripley-esque — if apparently harmless, submissive and charming — Communist undercover agent as he helps his pro-United States general to escape the country. The plot takes place on the day of the fall of Saigon, on an airplane full of family members and acquaintances desperate to leave nearly everyone else behind. Our leading man is communicating with a high-ranking Viet Cong official about the general’s every, ridiculous move and, by extension, those of the United States. Along the way, a scenario is established in which the Vietnam War is actually the United States War — as it is known in the Asian country — and in which the world was stopped not by those well-heeled Woodstock attendees, but rather, those who were under attack.

The tone here is one of a slightly macabre black comedy à la Joseph Heller, the author of the classic war tale Catch-22, a monument to the absurdity of war. Let’s not forget that Chan-wook was the guy who turned the hammer into an instrument of gore, and who made of the thriller an artistic endeavor with Oldboy. It almost seems as if Catch-22′s pilot protagonist Yossarian were dictating the script’s lines to narrator Hoa Xuande, the undercover spy known as The Captain who — and this part is interesting in more than one respect — is telling us the story from a horrible prison cell, in a future in which he has been discovered. This makes the way in which history is constantly rewritten more than evident, the way in which the person who writes it decides what is and isn’t important, and in what sense details can sometimes erect smokescreens.

Robert Downey Jr., playing one of his various roles in ‘The Sympathizer.’
Robert Downey Jr., playing one of his various roles in ‘The Sympathizer.’

The series proceeds to a unique depiction of the United States, beginning in the desert, continuing in a motel, and eventually settling into the suburbs, where it is shown over a liquor store counter at the eventual Los Angeles business that the general starts. It’s a vision based in a mythologization, a mythologization that doesn’t take long to reveal itself as papier-mâche, an empty stage, which becomes incisive and fascinating in the hands of Chan-wook. Nonetheless, the director’s pulse here is so attenuated, at times unrecognizable, so focused on this portrait, that it gets in its own way. But what is interesting is the dream that inspired the conflict that took place unseen by its dreamers, there in Vietnam. Close up, it does not look the same, of course, not in the slightest.

Stand-outs include a star turn by Sandra Oh — unrecognizable and masterful in her role as a secretary that her boss believes to be “Japanese” based her appearance, despite the fact that she tells him that she’s as Californian as he is. In a wonderful fistful of absurd roles in which he capitalizes on his persona’s chameleonic aspects, Robert Downey Jr. is always where you least expect him. They catapult the production into the territory of, if not a cult classic — there is something in its machinery that does not allow it to shine, one located in that certain rigidity, born of so many inexistent and necessary pieces, the weight of responsibility — a thoroughly enjoyable tale, especially suited for lovers of spy stories and the absurd.

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