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The Sympathizer

Supratik Bhattacharya Featured Reviews
4 Star popcorn reviewss

The HBO miniseries adapted from Việt Thanh Nguyễn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name is not your typical run-of-the-mill espionage thriller, it’s subversion of conventional tropes relies mainly on the perspective of the chief protagonist (always being addressed as the ‘Captain’), a half Vietnamese-American who is a mole planted by North Vietnamese to infiltrate the South Vietnamese special police. The miniseries follows the confession handed by the ‘Captain’ as he is captured by the Northern troops to prove his credibility to the communist forces. Hoa Xuande, the titular ’The Sympathizer’ displays a range of ethos portraying the vastly complex, inherently charismatic, even sometimes conflicted double agent character. The series is directed with razor-sharp satire, unhindered style by the showrunner Park Chon Wook and others. The tonal shift and genre jumps work well for most parts while mirroring and criticizing the white savior tropes. Sometimes, it seems that satire is the main objective, it seems evident that the writers are not aiming for a central storyline but rather categorizing white hypocrisy one by one. With that being said, it is not a demerit for that to be a plot driver, but sometimes it becomes a little bit caricaturist. Robert Downey Jr’s four characters vastly represent this aspect of the series. The maximalist, over-the-top approach to playing those four characters RDJ adopts, reflects the American’s greed for control and superiority under a façade of a benevolent, helping nation.

For example, take the character of the professor (played by RDJ) who loves to flex his oriental studies and uses our lead as a cheap trick for his peers as the former takes our lead as protégé. He aims to make ‘The Captain’ an ideal specimen of a perfect Asian test subject based on his biased, partial knowledge of them. He wants them to behave how Americans think of an average Vietnamese, only to satisfy their gratification. If you take the case of the CIA operator also played by RDJ, it also reflects another aspect of American-feigned benevolence. Sometimes subtly put and sometimes said in broad strokes, the former always makes it clear, that the South Vietnamese must always be debtful towards their savior and should always maintain a conformist approach to them. The most entertaining character played by RDJ is a filmmaker, who is apparently making an authentic film on the Vietnam War and hired ‘The Captain’ as a cultural consultant for achieving authenticity. The events that follow up are inspired by the events during the production of ‘Apocalypse Now’. The difference in what authenticity means for Americans and if it is authentic for the Vietnamese is explored through several scenes. In the end, what matters is the artistic satisfaction of the filmmaker, not authenticity. Several aspects of American hegemony—politics, culture, scholarship, and the security state have been presented in this show with spirited sarcasm.

Although not as stylish as his Korean works, Park Chan Wook implements a vast range of his inherent sense of humor to bring out the soul of the source novel. The sharp edits and scene transitions work well with the narrative style the creators are trying to achieve. The distinctive style is somewhat absent in the later episodes but the series finale although not directed by Park Chon Wook achieves the goal. In the curb of a spy thriller or satire, it is about migration—the transitions between contexts, identities, and loyalties, It is also necessarily anti-war, it poses the question at the end of the war, do ideologies survive, or get dumped under struggle for power? The statement in the prison camp” Nothing is more important than freedom and independence” really is open to various interpretations in the way the show ends.

Besides the political innuendos, the show relies on the capable shoulders of Hoa Xuande, whose charismatic screen presence, and unfiltered gift of gab echo writer Việt Thanh Nguyễn’s worldview. And no one other than Robert Downey jr could have played the faces of American institutions in such a way, his somewhat exaggerated portrayal of his characters is a conscious decision. The show has pacing issues in the middle, as the central plot device gets lost in the sarcasm, but still, the show succeeds on its own, satisfying the writer’s objective. In the end, the show depicts the loss of homeland and loss of identity due to American imperialism, a loss of destination for all those involved in that war be it South or North.

The show is necessarily a satire first, and a spy thriller/drama second so do keep your expectations in check if you are looking for only thrill and action.

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