Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Flicks | Park Chan-wook’s daring images haunt The Sympathizer like ghosts

Clarisse Loughrey’s Show of the Week column, published every Friday, spotlights a new show to watch or skip. This week: Who else but Park Chan-wook to adapt The Sympathizer from a novel breaching all imaginable genres? for Flicks

Park Chan-wook is the great master of teasing out moral troubles as if they were a magician’s sleight of hand. His films, among them the Vengeance trilogy (and its most famous instalment, 2003’s Oldboy) and last year’s Decision to Leave, ache with the cumulative weight of every human sin. But they’re tender, too, and sometimes beautiful. At other times, they simply stir up the soul in the way only electric, original cinema can really do.

Very few people other than Park, then, would have been suited to adapt Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. It breaches all imaginable genres—political thriller, satire, metafiction, etc—in a story narrated by a North Vietnamese spy embedded in the South Vietnamese secret police during the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese, logically, call the American War). This man, who we can refer to as “the Captain”, played wonderfully on the show by Hoa Xuande, is ordered to follow a high-ranking South Vietnamese general (Toan Le) as he flees to the United States in the war’s final days.

The Captain is half-Vietnamese, half-French. He is, in his own words, “a synthesis of incompatibilities”, whose dual identity and dual allegiances create an internal schism that threatens to tear him apart from the inside out. He was raised in Vietnam, but went to college in America, and is now forced to return to a country he thought he knew, now reintroduced through the eyes of those who sacrificed all, and left their homeland behind, on a red, white, and blue promise that (surprise, surprise) turned out to be a fanciful, capitalist lie.

While the Captain play acts servitude to the General, the General himself commands little respect outside of his small, exiled community, and so attempts to build his empire by exporting expired American candy back to the Vietnamese populace who got hooked on the stuff during the war. “America, they eat your heart, then complain about indigestion,” he eventually confesses. No one really has any sense of direction or purpose. Stretched out across these eight episodes is the heavy, lingering stench of a conflict that never really ended. Because when America wounds a landscape, it do so deep enough that the scars never really fade away.

The Sympathizer is about how Vietnam tells its history. It’s also about how America tells Vietnam’s history. It’s about what happens after the battle is over, and the warring sides have nothing left but to try and live. The Captain has two childhood best friends, together a little trio of musketeers: Man (Duy Nguyen) becomes his communist handler, back in Vietnam. Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan) despises communism, and wants to come to America with his family to start anew.

The Captain’s American associates always seem to arrive with the same face—that of Robert Downey Jr., in multiple roles differentiated by a small horde of wigs, prosthetics, and contact lenses. He’s the CIA agent, the Orientalist academic, the politician who wears his veteran status with pride, and the Hollywood director embarking on his own Apocalypse Now. The last of these puffs up his chest and claims “authenticity” by hiring the Captain as a consultant, yet refuses to give a single Vietnamese character dialogue because, in his mind, they should “live on in that metaphoric space”, whatever the hell that means.

Downey Jr comes off as farcical. He sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s very much intentional. The Sympathizer is nuanced about Vietnamese identity, justifiably less so about American identity—it’s not only revenge against the decades of harmful stereotypes, but a monsterisation of every snide comment, or intellectualised piece of bigotry, that came under the same banner of a white supremacist America convinced it simply knew better than anyone else.

Yet, it’s hard to simply discuss these ideas on screen, without turning humans into mouth pieces. Here’s where Park steps in, condensing a thesis into a single shot of a gun fired, point blank at a friend, through the thin paper barrier of a burger chain wrapper, emblazoned with a lopsided smiley face. It can be even simpler than that: perhaps the camera will suddenly snap across the room to catch a revelatory piece of dialogue. It’s a special kind of magic. Park only directed the first three episodes, while co-writing all seven—the rest are overseen by Fernando Meirelles and Marc Munden, who do good work but lack, here, the same daring sensibility. But that’s no problem. Park’s images haunt the rest of The Sympathizer like ghosts.

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