Cultural adaptation in ‘The Sympathzier’ 

“The Sympathizer” is a new HBO series from Korean director Park Chan-Wook and Toronto director Don McKellar, based on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s bestselling novel of the same name.


“The Sympathizer” is a new HBO series from Korean director Park Chan-Wook and Toronto director Don McKellar, based on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s bestselling novel of the same name. It stars Hoa Xuande alongside recent Oscar-winner Robert Downey Jr. In addition to Park and McKellar, the writers’ room holds several acclaimed playwrights and novelists. The series is born from pure prestige, the kind of prestige that should forge something undeniable, but impersonal. And yet, “The Sympathizer,” which is brutal and political, remains resonant. Xuande plays “the Captain,” a spy for the Viet Cong during the end of the Vietnam War, working for the South Vietnamese, and stationed in America. It is the ultimate multicultural exploration: how better to illustrate the performance of being an Asian immigrant than with someone who has been undercover his whole life? It’s a weighty premise, but one that “The Sympathizer” more than delivers on.

Xuande is an excellent lead. He’s a relatively unknown actor from Australia but you wouldn’t know it. His uncomfortable yet slick facial performance sells his stress perfectly. It is a performance that will undoubtedly become his breakout role.

America’s harshness towards South Vietnamese refugees is immediately apparent to the protagonists. The ‘Captain’ is joined in the states by other South Vietnamese refugees, who are housed by the military in inhumane camps. The Captain is the first to get out, but only when sponsored by a racist “Oriental Studies” Professor (Downey). The hour-long episodes track how different characters survive in their new setting. One former army major starts an export business of expired candy. Another character steals scenes as an actress in insensitive Vietnam War films. This is the life accepted by the Vietnamese Americans, one of grievances and silver linings.

These imperfections are where the series’ dark comedy shines. While primarily a spy thriller, it is also a Vietnamese-centric portrayal of the war. Through its comedy, the series embraces this. Downey is in a quadruple role; his comedic portrayals of a CIA agent, professor, documentarian, and congressman are an ingenious depiction of the US and its dismissive mistreatment of the Vietnamese people. At times, the protagonists display a morbid humor that could only be developed in a world where horror is normalized.

The series’ commentary shows how everyone in the community has their own reckoning with the land that ostensibly welcomes them, but ultimately rejects them. Thought-provoking quotes are dropped as if it’s nothing; in a tense scene, the Captain defends his loyalty to the North, saying, “I was fascinated and repulsed,”  when describing America. His brother counters, “That’s what it is to love America.”

Being a double agent, The Captian remains unknowable. And yet, the world he inhabits feels rich and alive. The Korean director, Vietnamese author, American writers, and Canadian showrunners, rather than dull the series’ authenticity, refine its worldview. Unlike many hasty adaptations, ‘The Sympathizer’ does much more than do Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel justice.  ‘The Sympathizer’ is far more than a single character’s cultural musings, but rather a brilliant depiction of the complexities of identity and loyalty.