Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Pop Matters | ‘The Sympathizer’ Fractures Identity into a Knockout Kaleidoscopic Tale

The mini-series adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s kaleidoscopic tale The Sympathizer is a knockout account of colonialism, war, and (the loss of) identity. Ana Yorke writes for Pop Matters

What if all your identities – ethnic, social, political – your entire existence were broken into dualities and contradictory fragments? What if all of them got reshaped and whimsically crushed by the Western hegemony, no matter how much you squirmed? What remains of you? How do you relate to the world at large?

For the majority of non-occidental Others, enduring this fragmentation and everlasting hydraulic-like pressure from world powers is the only way to exist. Captain, the protagonist of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Sympathizer (2015), knows this all too well. Nguyen’s 500-page epic about a young communist operative migrating to the US after the Vietnam War is among the finest works of literature of the past decade, resplendent with uproarious, infectious prose, firecracker satire, and horror bordering on the absurd. As a political parable shown through the lens of ethnography anchored by a coming-of-age story shrouded in a thriller shot through with satire flirting with the existential culminating in Brechtian quasi tragedy, it also comes across as well nigh unfilmable. 

That is until A24 teamed up with Korean grandmaster Park Chan-wook, writer Don McKellar, and Hollywood Godfather Robert Downey Jr. The Sympathizer miniseries, a seven-hour-long HBO Max limited release, is a singularly adequate adaptation that pulls off a competent mash of this structurally complicated and narratively multifaceted account. Given that the topic of the Vietnam War and its victims is supremely hot and exoticized in US art, one could hardly imagine a Western director taking on the ungrateful task of dishing out a visceral, kaleidoscopic historical and political tale from a Vietnamese perspective, told by a Vietnamese refugee. 

However, in Park, one of the greatest auteurs alive who happens to be both a philosopher and Southeast Asian, the Americans have found their joker. A preeminent exponent of Korean cinema with some transatlantic credits, he understands the gaze into “otherness”, political oppression, and especially violence. He also has a damn fine sense of (dark) humor. In the first three installments, Park sets the aesthetic and tone for what’s to come before passing the baton to Brazil’s Fernando Meirelles for episode four and Englishman Marc Munde for the rest of the series.

Carefully thought out and masterfully executed, The Sympathizer is a supremely disturbing work that entertains and horrifies through and through. Outstanding camerawork featuring a multitude of very wide shots in key scenes, creative direction that cunningly employs just the right amount of voiceover to underscore literary origins, and sizzling performances from the varied ensemble all buttress this profound meditation on the dissolution of (Vietnamese) identity amid colonization, war, and forced immigration. 

Starring Hoa Xuande (Cowboy Bebop), Fred Nguyen Khan, Sandra Oh, and Downey himself in no less than four roles, The Sympathizer follows the book closely and tells the nonlinear story of the Captain and his many engagements. We begin toward the end, as the nameless Captain writes his “confession” in a Communist “re-education” camp back in Vietnam. Twelve months of interrogation have broken his body but not his spirit, which he pours into a mammoth meta-diary reading like surrealist fiction.

To please a faceless Commandant, Captain will recount his entire life, from an ignoble childhood as a mixed-race son of a single, impoverished Vietnamese mother and a French priest to his ways in the US as a Communist spy and a dubious return back to post-war Vietnam, where he was captured. Along the way, we will observe and scrutinize his countless undertakings – at least to the extent possible for a distraught, unreliable narrator who finds himself a stranger in a strange land time and time again. 

If we’re to lay out The Sympathizer‘s plot neatly and in order, Captain’s misfortunes start in utero, as his exploited teenage mother conceives with a white colonizer, a man of cloth, no less. As an illegitimate child with piercing blue eyes, he would be viciously bullied and isolated all through childhood (“a bastard with twelve assholes” being a standout insult) until one day, two boys, Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan) and Man (Duy Nguyen), offer compassion. The three will forge a bond for life, but fate will take them separate ways. 

After one colonizer had been substituted for another, the American War (as it’s called in Vietnam) ravaged the country, driving a further rift between North and South Vietnam. Captain, a Southerner just old enough to be a Communist spy, toils away as a lapdog both for the South’s most insufferable general (a great Toan Le), and his CIA handler, the callous sleazeball Claude (Downey Jr.). As the American-backed South is about to get run over by the Communist North, the General and the Captain are forced to flee for the US during the fall of Saigon in 1975. The way this refugee dispatch is orchestrated and executed during Operation Frequent Wind is absolute bravura filmmaking. It will have you floored with laughter, then sorrow. 

Amazingly, though, the misfortunes of these people escalate, not disappear, once they arrive in the US. Having landed in a refugee camp in sunny California – shown through Park’s lens as a vacuous, hypersaturated cardboard backdrop of a B-movie – they will be gazed upon with bemusement, inquired with racist befuddlement, and generally treated as props for points in middle-class progressiveness. The older generations will withdraw into themselves, sitting their days out in isolated nothingness, their status and culture gone. Some, like the General, will scrap together a business (he has a liquor store) and a small community but cling to fantasies of a glorious return to their homeland (his by leading a militia). The younger ones, such as General’s daughter Lana (a fierce Vy Le), will make enthusiastic attempts at the American Dream and become well-integrated but still defined by their skin color.  

The Captain, who studied in the US and speaks idiomatic, accent-free English, hovers around all these characters, their old and new home, and especially their old and new handlers. His blue eyes and a deliciously American aptitude for platitudes set him apart from the other “Asians” in certain ways. In Los Angeles, he gets out of the refugee camp before the General because his former professor (Downey Jr., again), an American Orientalist obsessed with the “exotic”, sponsors him at Claude’s behest; his career is upgraded to a clerical position at Occidental College (you are right to laugh), where he falls in love with a Professor’s assistant, Japanese-American Sophia Mori (a superbly seething Sandra Oh). 

The Sympathizer could have been a coming-of-age tale were it not for the Captain’s past and present duty of keeping tabs on the General and reporting to his handler, and his identity as a Communist spy only further splitting. The Captain’s poor mother comes to mind: she used to console him by saying he is “not a half, but twice of anything”.

Twice of anything turns out not to be a good thing, though. Nguyen’s overarching topic has always been crystal clear: the divisions and dualities brought on by political ideology and the hegemonies of the dominant powers. The Captain, with his French-Vietnamese origin, Southern roots but loyalty to the Northern cause, a blue-eyed boy with a US degree and mannerisms who dreams of a free Vietnam, is a man lost between identities that we all come to learn he can never truly own. He longs to be a self-determining citizen with a soul and a purpose but ends up nothing more than a petty tool in the grand scheme of war, forever beholden to the worst people on either side of the political spectrum. Like so many others everywhere, he’s disposable to the point of not having a name. Even his moniker, The Captain, is a twisted joke – this kid has no influence on anything whatsoever.

Park and McKellar addressed the thematic importance of duality and the loss, not the gain, of “culture” by way of colonization and migration. Describing the Captain as a “bipartite, a man of two faces” in a letter to the critics, they go on to cement the importance of Downey Jr. as a “quartered” performer, one who portrays distinct patriarchal figures and “embodies the concept of how the divisions of the American establishment are intertwined and in collusion.”

The decision to deploy Downey Jr. as a Dr. Strangelove homage of sorts and set him loose on a Tropic Thunder-ous rampage was a bold one at best, but it works like a charm, not least because the Academy Award winner gets down in the trenches like never before. All of his roles in The Sympathizer are grotesque, manic, and commanding – just like the US chieftains. There is the uncannily blonde and flippant CIA handler Claude, the obsessive Professor Hammer with a Hitleresque mustache, the insufferable Vietnamophile Congressman Ned Goodwin with a hideous toupée and an outsized mouthpiece accent, and the Auteur Niko (Downey Jr.), an insanely ambitious filmmaker looking to bring the “Vietnamese tragedy” to life. 

These are all caricatures, but dangerous, powerful ones, fleshed out by the man who’s made his life’s fortune by playing the American billionaire superhero Tony Stark. The irony is not lost on Downey Jr., who magnificently tapdances on the razor’s edge to position these four monsters between parody and horror, and Park’s understanding of the assignment helps immensely. In a series-defining scene toward the end of episode three, all four coalesce into a foreboding fever dream over dinner with the Captain, who will again be tasked with helping them realize their neocolonial goals. Both Downey Jr. and Xuande are spectacular throughout. 

There is a lot to digest in The Sympathizer, with layers upon layers of genre and tonal mashups and demanding spatial and temporal shifts. The show excels at tying its many themes together despite a fragmented, non-linear first-person narrative, while Nguyen’s (and Captain’s) caustic humor permeates nearly every scene, generously and effectively allowing viewers some respite through bouts of laughter, however uncomfortable. 

This uncomfortable laughter is nowhere more pronounced than in “Give Us Some Good Lines”, the fourth and possibly best episode of the bunch, helmed by Meirelles. A perfect midway point, it follows the fateful dinner the Captain has with his four attachés, where he is tasked with consulting on Niko’s Hollywood film about the war in Vietnam (Coppola would not appreciate the innuendo), coyly titled The Hamlet. Ever resourceful, he will earnestly endeavor to educate the creatives on the language and Vietnamese culture, but things will keep getting out of hand, with Lana insisting on infiltrating the crew and an unhinged method actor simulating warfare a bit too much (an excellent, uproarious David Duchovny). All the while the egomaniacal Niko, who keeps an alligator in a glass case and cares about “authenticity” but not enough to give Vietnamese actors any lines, may or may not be injuring extras with unsafe props. Suffice to say, it won’t end well for Captain.

The Sympathizer’s pacing remains relentless throughout its seven hours, but it makes for a wholly engaging, at turns hilarious and gut-wrenching watch. It’s nothing short of wondrous how the authors succeed in presenting all the bombastic events and twists from Nguyen’s weighty tome, but it’s the workaday stuff, the unrewarding tedium and the stale sweat of a banal, denigrated existence in diaspora, that really knocks the wind out. This is a story of ordinary people forced to do extraordinary things for other people’s ends but never coming fully into their own. The tragedy of the mundane and the naturalization of displacement, or conflict, hit harder than the scenes of death and torture – or SoCal satire. 

The restless and eternally unfulfilled Captain, a kind friend to a devastated Bon and a jealous lover to Ms. Mori, then Lana, is possibly a fascinating man. Whip-smart and good-looking, he could have been a contender, except constant racist abuse and wars bend him and shove him down like an ingrown wisdom tooth that can only decay. Ultimately, The Sympathizer is not a coming-of-age story because our protagonist never flourishes into anything on either side of the world. It is also not a memoir since the Captain cannot be trusted to recall his homeland or life, distorted as they have been by everpresent trauma. We don’t really know who this man is because he doesn’t know it himself; he’s always split, always defined by his role in the lives of others. 

Still, we feel for him and the countless others who might have physically survived wars but whose lives were effectively lost to the hegemonies of the globally dominant powers. In one woefully comical scene, Professor Hammer scolds Mori for not being “Asian enough”. “I’m from Gardena,” she retorts flatly. This bizarre negative dialectic is a reminder that the Captain is not the only split character we are witnessing but a paradigm of the ways the masters mold the identity of all Others, who are never allowed autonomy or self-determination. With their homes destroyed, they are either to toil away as an unwanted appendage of those better off or perish. Soon enough, it’s clear those options are merely an illusion of choice. In the liberal hell we are cursed with, we are bound to perish either way.

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