‘The Sympathizer’ (Limited Series): Shifting Ideologies and Conflicting Loyalties

Nuha Hassan
6 min readApr 28, 2024

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Hoa Xuande as The Captain. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery.

A man of two faces, torn between his allegiance to the North and the South. The new limited series, The Sympathizer, is a satirical drama that follows the central protagonist and narrator confessing his undercover work as a Communist agent for Vietnam and a police officer for America. A double agent to both countries, the series explores the Vietnam War from the Western perspective, post-colonial examinations, and media critique, along with multiple disguises, undercover spies, massive explosions, scenes of torture and murder that tangles the narrator’s story for Vietnam’s liberation from American forces.

The Captain, played by Hoa Xuande (Cowboy Bebop), is a half-Vietnamese, half-French undercover spy for Northern Vietnam and the right-hand man for the American-allied Southern Vietnamese General (Toan Le). The Captain reports to his Northern handler and best friend, Man (Duy Nguyễn), an ardent Communist, on the General’s plans to defeat the Viet Cong. During the final days of the Vietnam War, The Captain learns that the General and his family plan to leave Vietnam. Man instructs The Captain to escape with the General’s family, his other best friend, Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan), his wife and their infant baby.

When they arrive on American shores, The Captain finds himself in deep waters as an undercover agent in a new territory. He reports to Man with new methods of communication about the General’s life. Not only does he find these complications hindering his return to his homeland, but The Captain also deals with precarious characters. The CIA Agent Claude, played by Robert Downey Jr., also plays three more roles: a congressman who only cares about his political gain, an Oriental Studies professor obsessed with Japanese culture, and the big shot Hollywood director satirising the Vietnam War from a Western perspective, working in Vietnam on behalf of American-allied Southern Vietnam. The unnamed protagonist deals with the inner conflict of his allegiance to his country but is torn between two worlds — a man of two faces who learns the consequences of the greater cause.

Hoa Xuande as The Captain, Fred Nguyen Khan as Bon and Duy Nguyễn as Man. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery.

The Sympathizer is co-created by Park Chan-wook, who directed the first three episodes of the limited series, and Don McKellar. The South Korean director is best known for his directorial work for Oldboy, The Handmaiden and his most recent film, Decision to Leave. The three episodes directed by Park burst with his signature style filled with mystery, and suspense that twists and turns the narratives and characters. Park’s visuals are expressive with emotion, even his characters, and keep the style and elements consistent with sudden zooms and pans that provide a sense of urgency and paranoia in the environment. This style is evident in his previous projects showing how he uses narrative and thematic elements to dance around with the lights and colours carefully constructing a single shot. There’s no denying that Park has delivered another incredible body of work that displays complex characters and a story deconstructing the rules of societal ideas.

While The Sympathizer starts strong with The Captain’s recollection of his time as a double agent in Vietnam, Park’s distinctive style slowly vanishes in the remaining episodes. The sudden zooms and whip pans are no longer used to portray the characters’ emotions. The remaining episodes don’t follow the visual tone and style of Park’s direction. The visual style and the strong narratives fade away. There’s no clear reason why the visual style is not used in the remaining episodes, but Park’s unapologetic images and techniques were important to tell this story. The overall style and tone of the unreliable narrator with his many twists and turns accomplishes a great feat in storytelling that Park is known for. By removing these elements, The Sympathizer’s latter episodes turn into a dull series that diminishes the greatness of the story and the director’s work.

L-R: Robert Downey Jr plays Niko and Professor Hammer. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Discovery.

One of the themes of The Sympathizer is how the series shows the Western perspective or gaze of the Vietnam War. The Captain is assigned to work as a cultural advisor for Niko, the eccentric Hollywood director’s next big-budget movie based on the Vietnam War. Niko has no interest in portraying the actual reality of the war from the perspective of a Vietnamese person. He is focused on creating his next big movie with big explosives and portraying his American hero as the ‘white saviour of the movie.’ The Captain corrects every mistake written by Niko to depict the true Vietnamese pain and trauma of the war. In return, Niko co-opts the Vietnamese trauma, identity, and pain to subject them to an inauthentic product for Western audiences.

Downey’s Professor Hammer, the Orientalist professor who fetishises Asians, is another character who exploits The Captain and immerses himself in Japanese culture. The actor portrays the stereotypical Asian-fetishising character, and it is certainly difficult to watch. He adorns himself in kimonos and partakes in Japanese culture with his colleagues who view his assistant, Sofia (Sandra Oh), and The Captain as objects to be gawked at from afar.

This isn’t the first time Downey has played a character wearing blackface as Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder. The characters he plays in The Sympathizer and Tropic Thunder address Hollywood’s “method actors” who take their roles extremely seriously. Anyone can justify this by saying that he plays a white character who plays a Black character in a fictional movie that satirises Hollywood. The distinction and context matter, people! “Acting!” as Al Pacino says. While both of these projects take on a satirical approach to critique media and a Western perspective of Asian stories, it’s important to ask, why does Downey keep playing caricatures and stereotypical characters like this? It’s for social commentary, of course! It’s meant to make audiences uncomfortable, to show the ridiculousness of society’s worst people. Or perhaps it’s projection.

The Sympathizer begins with a strong premise and an ambitious direction. However, inconsistent visual images and narratives weaken the series' elements. It’s just all over the place! There’s no distinctive voice or style that sticks. Park’s style is fitting, but the constantly shifting narratives and diversions are difficult to follow. Like The Captain, the limited series is also having an identity crisis. But Park and McKellar do an incredible job showing the changing perspective of the Vietnam War in Hollywood and the United States. It’s part dark comedy, part spy thriller that barely gets a few laughs due to Downey’s incredibly method performances of the four characters. It’s hard to pinpoint what went wrong with the series, but that’s a good place to start!

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Decolonise Palestine

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More Palestine reading materials

Read about the BDS movement

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