“The Sympathizer” Has an Identity Crisis

HBO’s “The Sympathizer,” which traces the diasporic aftershocks of the Vietnam War, establishes its pitch-black humor and moral complexity almost immediately, with a scene set in Saigon days before its fall. Though a fortunate few among the South Vietnamese military have been guaranteed spots on planes bound for the United States, each man is allowed admittance only for himself, his wife, and “a child.” Upon hearing the news, a major (Phanxinê), nicknamed Dumpling, plans to leave behind his daughter so that he can bring his mother. (“You can always have another kid,” he figures.) A less coöperative soldier threatens suicide if he can’t secure five more seats. The Captain (Hoa Xuande), the officer with the power to decide the final flight manifest, is unmoved by the ultimatum. He gestures toward a handgun on his desk, then heads for the door. “I’ll give you some privacy,” he says. “Make it fast.”

The Captain, a North Vietnamese undercover agent who has embedded himself in the intelligence office of a South Vietnamese military leader known as the General (Toan Le), looks forward to helping remake his homeland after the Communists’ victory. Instead, he’s instructed by his handler, Man (Duy Nguyễn), to follow the General and his family to Los Angeles. There, the Captain finds his place among the refugee community, romances an older woman (Sandra Oh) who preaches free love, and waits for sporadic communiqués from Hanoi. The surveillance job gives him purpose but leaves him in limbo. While his compatriots discover new lives and possibilities in California, the Captain—a biracial, effectively orphaned bastard whose college years in the state a decade prior left him “fascinated and repulsed” by America—is tasked with carrying out his one-man forever mission in secret.

Like its protagonist, the bilingual seven-part miniseries is proudly protean. “The Sympathizer,” an adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel, is an espionage thriller, a refugee drama, and a war tragedy, as well as a violent farce and a Hollywood sendup. Thanks to the Korean director Park Chan-wook, who served as a co-showrunner, it’s also an exercise in style, awash in the earth hues of the nineteen-seventies and the jewel tones favored by the auteur. As in Park’s films—namely, “Oldboy” and “The Handmaiden”—dark comedy, convoluted chronologies, and fanciful torture scenes abound. The narrative jumps forward and backward in time, framed by the Captain’s eventual imprisonment in a North Vietnamese military camp where, as part of his “reëducation,” he’s prodded to write and rewrite his so-called confessions; every revision casts doubt on the events we’ve seen depicted. The sense of disorientation is compounded by the multitudinous performances of Robert Downey, Jr., who plays no fewer than four characters, differentiated from one another through wigs, contacts, and accents. He embodies the institutions that, working in lockstep, created the conditions for the U.S. intrusion into Vietnam: Washington paranoia, Cold War militarism, academic racism, and cultural imperialism. At one point, Downey, as the unblinkingly intense, eerily ubiquitous C.I.A. agent Claude, ushers the Captain into a steak house, which he calls “the natural habitat of the most dangerous creature on earth: a white man in a suit and tie.”

Park’s flair for irony-drunk action is deployed to the greatest effect midway through the series, after the Captain deflects suspicion from himself by framing Dumpling as a mole, and the General—fearing for his reputation among the tight-knit Vietnamese refugees—orders a hit. When Dumpling gets home from work one evening, the Captain draws him out with the offering of a durian, then tussles with him in a carport under a balcony where Dumpling’s beloved, utterly oblivious mother is taking a smoke break. Incapable of looking his victim in the eye, the hardly hardened Captain resorts to hiding Dumpling’s face with a paper bag from a nearby burger joint. It’s mordant and tragic and suspenseful and strange—a scene with kill-or-be-killed stakes set against the backdrop of L.A.’s many run-down apartments. In the aftermath, the pungent fruit lies abandoned in a corner, a distinctly Asian memento mori.

“The Sympathizer” is most successful as a portrait of such intra-community conflicts and desires. Claude’s assessment of the General as an “impotent clown” isn’t wrong, but his capacity to inspire and to mobilize his followers, however diminished, can’t be entirely dismissed. Throughout the series, the ousted leader goes to great lengths to preserve something of the standing he once enjoyed, stoking fantasies of re-starting the war to vanquish the Communists and reclaim everything that South Vietnam lost—a list that includes his daughter Lana (Vy Le), who has thrown herself into American culture with disconcerting speed. Political tensions run high at community gatherings, where an errant sentiment can prompt whole families to walk out in disgust. The series is particularly empathetic toward the men, some of whom come to believe that it would’ve been preferable to die in battle than to live with the indignities of asylum and the agony of loss.

“The Sympathizer” also excels in satirizing the racism that attended, and, in some cases, abetted, the Vietnam War, skewering everyone from self-important student activists to the film icon (and infamous yellowface practitioner) David Carradine. In one subplot, the Captain finds work as a cultural consultant on an antiwar action flick whose pompous, Francis Ford Coppola-esque director (Downey) generates sympathy for civilians by comparing them to water buffalo: “innocent, modest, docile.” Another job forces the Captain into the orbit of a professor of Oriental studies (Downey, yet again) who calls himself an egg—white on the outside, yellow on the inside—and freely fetishizes his Asian and Asian American employees.

But Park and his co-creator, Don McKellar, never quite get these disparate elements to gel. In the novel, the Captain’s medium is his message: his lyrically reproachful narration betrays his bourgeois sensibility and jaded world view. The show, though frequently poignant and entertaining, is pulled in too many directions to establish any real sense of his interior life. The Captain asserts early on that he “was cursed to see every issue from both sides,” but, for all that we hear about his identity crisis, we feel neither his revolutionary fervor for the Marxist cause nor his anguish at being seduced by the American promise of ease and reinvention. Late in the series, his interrogators become impatient with his evasions, using increasingly horrific methods in pursuit of a genuine revelation. “There’s always something more to confess,” one says. For better or for worse, he gives almost nothing away. ♦

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