‘The Sympathizer’ examines ‘flip side of the American dream’

‘The Sympathizer’ examines ‘flip side of the American dream’

By: - Entertainment Editor
/ 12:20 AM May 15, 2024

Hoa Xuande (left) and Robert Downey Jr. in “The Sympathizer” —HBO/ HBO GO

Hoa Xuande (left) and Robert Downey Jr. in “The Sympathizer” —HBO/ HBO GO

When we visited the set of HBO, HBO Go and A24’s acclaimed seven-part series “The Sympathizer” in Thailand last year, we were as excited about the prospect of watching how Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel is adapted for the screen as we were about meeting its celebrated directors, namely Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”), Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”) and Marc Munden (“The Mark of Cain”).

“The Sympathizer,” which dropped its penultimate episode last Monday, is a visually and thematically compelling black comedy about the exploits of a double spy (Hoa Xuande) in the South Vietnamese army after he gets himself embedded as an immigrant in the United States following the fall of Saigon in 1975.


Aside from Hoa, the series also stars Sandra Oh, David Duchovny, John Cho and the indefatigable Robert Downey Jr.—who plays four different characters, namely as a CIA figure, a swishy university professor, a congressman and as a film director.


READ: On the set of ‘The Sympathizer’ with Park Chan-wook

After our interview with showrunner/director Park Chan-wook, we were driven to the set where the South Korean auteur was filming a crucial sequence for the first episode involving the main protagonist and his two close friends. We were told that the next shooting day would involve a scene for the final episode.

Before we were ushered into a Vietnamese restaurant set, we waited in a crowded room with producer Niv Fichman (“Blindness,” “BlackBerry,” “The Red Violin”), who explained to us what went into their decision to make a series instead of a film.

Very cinematic

“The first person who read the novel was a good friend of mine, actor-producer Kim Ly, whose mother is Swedish and whose father is Vietnamese,” Niv related. “Because of that, Kim felt some connection with the main protagonist, the Captain, who is French-Vietnamese. He read the book even before it became famous.

“When it came out, it was the first time that a major American novel would tell the story of the Vietnam conflict and its aftermath, but this time, it’s told from the Vietnamese perspective. This was in early 2016 [a year after the novel was released].

“Kim and I worked together on a film in Vietnam called ‘Saigon Bodyguards,’ where he was a producer and one of the lead actors. Like me, he’s also from Canada. He told me, ‘You have to read this book! It’s so good it won the Pulitzer Prize.’ So, I did, and I thought it was fantastic. And since I see things as a film producer, I thought it would be great as a film … because it feels very cinematic.


“So, we spoke to Viet Thanh Nguyen, the author. I produced a film a while back called ‘Blindness’ (2008), directed by Fernando Meirelles, based on a novel by Nobel laureate Jose Saramago and starring Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Gael Garcia Bernal and Sandra Oh. It’s easy to understand the connections from here (laughs).

“We asked Viet Thanh who he wanted to direct this, because he saw this project as a series. He said Park Chan-wook, since ‘Oldboy’ was part of the inspiration for his novel. So if you’re familiar with the book’s famous squid scene [which involved masturbation] and the violence it depicts, you know that these themes could be right up Chan-wook’s alley.

“Since I knew Chan-wook, I approached him about the project. But at the time, he was busy with another series ‘The Little Drummer Girl,’ starring Florence Pugh and Alexander Skarsgard. He did manage to read it a year later [in 2019] and expressed interest in helming it—not as a film, but as a TV series.”


Why did they think its story would resonate with Asian viewers?

“It’s a major series, you know? HBO put a huge amount of resources into it,” explained Niv. “It’s an American series where a big chunk of the dialogue is being spoken in the Vietnamese language, and its perspective is fully Vietnamese.

“Since a big part of it is set in the US, it’s also about the pursuit of the American dream—but it’s the ‘other side’ of the American dream! It references the American dream with a lot of ironies. So, I think it’ll resonate with the different communities that have come to the US. Like, in the old days, there was ‘The Godfather’ for the Italian community in Brooklyn, and so on.”

The book also makes a hefty reference to the Philippines when it discusses its film-within-a-film storyline, especially when the main character is hired as a Vietnamese consultant for a movie that winkingly channels “Apocalypse Now” or “Platoon.” We asked Niv to discuss the changes made.

“Yes, part of the story is about a film within a film. In the book, that movie is shot in the Philippines. But in our story, we decided not to make it in the Philippines. We decided to do it in the US so that other characters connected to the main character can still be part of the supposedly Philippine-set] story. The change was made out of narrative reasons, not because we didn’t want to shoot to the Philippines.”

Takes time

What did they find most challenging about bringing this particular project to life?

“I’ve been working on this project since 2016—that’s seven years! At the time, my hair had same color as yours [black] … now it’s all gray (laughs)! Considering where we ended up, from the time that two guys started to read a book and got the rights to it, then we got this partnership with HBO … I mean, this journey has been pretty great!

“This may have taken me seven years to do, but my journey with ‘Blindness’ was even longer—like, 10 years! When it takes us a long time to finish our great big projects, it’s not because we keep on trying and failing—it’s more like we’re waiting for [the stars to align], like Park Chan-wook finishing another series and deciding to do ours.

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“It was a gamble because he could have easily said no, so we were very lucky that he said yes. Then, we had to put all the other pieces together—like getting A24 to give us a little bit of money, then we had to write the pilot episode, etc. Every little step takes a year … and each little thing takes time. That may seem like a pretty long time, but then again, we got lucky every step of the way.” INQ

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