The Sympathizer Review

The Sympathizer
Imprisoned in a North Vietnamese re-education camp, a man (Hoa Xuande) recalls his years as a Communist spy.

by Olly Richards |
Published on

Streaming on: Sky / NOW

Episodes viewed: 7 of 7

At regular opportunities, The Sympathizer likes to remind you not to blindly trust what you’re told. At the tail end of the Vietnam War, its narrator (Hoa Xuande), known only as The Captain, is being held in a North Vietnamese re-education camp, where he’s forced into confessing his story. As he recounts his years as a Communist spy, first infiltrating the South Vietnamese special police, then operating as a mole in America after the fall of Saigon, all while reporting back to the very people now holding him captive, The Captain repeatedly states that this is his version of events. Time rewinds as he rethinks his account, adding new details. We watch scenes that he admits he never witnessed. In war, there is no truth, only points of view.

The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer is a big, fiercely intelligent, often very funny, sometimes difficult drama. Based on Việt Thanh Nguyễn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, it’s a story of many themes, wrestled into mostly digestible shape by showrunners Don McKellar and Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden). In its simplest terms, it’s about a man understanding his identity — The Captain is half Vietnamese, half American, so technically has no loyalty to a ‘side’ — but it’s curious about a great deal more than that.

It’s not meant to be simple. None of this is simple.

With all the beefy themes being explored — the refugee experience; Americanisation of history; assimilation; appropriation — it can be hard to orient yourself within the story. Each episode is almost standalone. Settings and tones shift, from explosive action in the opener; to broad comedy in ‘Give Us Some Good Lines’, an episode that follows the making of a crass American movie about the Vietnam War; to a haunting and surreal finale. All this is, though, probably the point. It’s not meant to be simple. None of this is simple.

Relative unknown Hoa Xuande (Cowboy Bebop) is terrific in the lead, giving The Captain a Boy Scout-ish layer of innocence over his darkness. He’s the sturdy, underplayed core, which allows things around him, both in style and performance, to hit a more eccentric pitch. That’s particularly true in the case of Robert Downey Jr, who plays four roles, representing different facets of American power, from government operatives to a Hollywood director. Laden with wigs, accents and fake noses, he turns in a big performance — four big performances — which, while a lot in isolation, make sense in the context of this being The Captain’s memory of outsized American personalities.

This is a show to give yourself over to. Even when its intent isn’t always clear, its path is intriguing and everything comes into focus in time. It asks a lot from its audience and rewards it greatly with an original viewpoint on a key moment in history, and its present-day ripples.

For all its daffy comedy and action spectacle, this is a very cerebral, challenging series. And it’s definitely a challenge worth taking on.
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