'The Sympathizer' review: Genre blender with a bloody bow on top

'What is it with you – Captains and (ahem) civil wars seem to follow you everywhere.' Photos: Handout

Somewhere around its halfway mark, HBO's 1970s-set limited series The Sympathizer brought memories of Tropic Thunder flooding back – all while its protagonist undergoes trials highly reminiscent of that hazy, crazy journey into the heart of darkness, Apocalypse Now.

That's all very intentional, given that the celebrated Pulitzer Prize-winning source novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen is a blend of genres from political satire to dark comedy to spy thriller.

This adaptation, courtesy of Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) and Canadian actor-director-writer Don McKellar, is no less a mash-up – and one that works just as well, too.

Framed as the "confession" of a mixed-race North Vietnamese spy implanted in South Vietnam's secret police during the Vietnam War (which, we are reminded, is called the American War in Vietnam), it is thought-provoking viewing laced with gallows humour, bursts of violence, cultural clashes and occasionally, repulsive revelations.

You will seldom see a more exquisitely framed and shot murder scene. And from an unrelated disclosure, you'll also never look at squid the same way again.

'Someone said open bar, so we signed right up.''Someone said open bar, so we signed right up.'

We follow the abovementioned spy, the Captain (Hoa Xuande, Hungry Ghosts, Cowboy Bebop), from the fall of Saigon in 1975 to resettlement in the United States, during which he continues to spy on the refugee community there.

And for good reason: his former superior from the South, the General (Toan Le), is unable to accept his homeland being in the hands of the communists and plans a return.

Between spying and doing the General's dirty work, Cap tries his best to integrate into American society to keep his cover intact; begins an affair with his Japanese-American colleague Sofia (Sandra Oh); and winds up as a consultant on a big Hollywood film (Harold and Mulder alert!).

He also encounters various types of Americans, mostly in the form of Robert Downey, Jr. The freshly-minted Oscar winner plays four roles here, adopting different hairstyles, mannerisms and worldviews as well as (reportedly) frequent improvisation to show us a cross-section of America as seen through the Captain's eyes.

Seeing RDJ popping up all over the place might throw less focused viewers off their stride, more so in one totally bonkers moment when all his incarnations share a table with the protagonist.

The intention, apparently, is to show how "the divisions of the American establishment are intertwined and in collusion" (Park and McKellar's words). It's to the showrunners and the actor's credit that this isn't too hard to follow and fathom, though rapt attention is required.

RDJ's various screen personas, mile markers of sorts on the main character's journey, would not be as significant or effective without a terrific performance by Hoa, who navigates Cap's political, moral, amorous and existential dilemmas with aplomb.

'It's such a relief to just play the guitar and be a free spirit here, after all those years of surgery and dodging obsessive assassins.''It's such a relief to just play the guitar and be a free spirit here, after all those years of surgery and dodging obsessive assassins.'

The Captain's saga truly is a trip into darkness, as the loyalties he develops while "embedded" lead him to question his mission, yet fill him with revulsion over the moral compromises he is forced to make. You can fairly feel the self-doubt emanating off the screen even through Hoa's smile or straight face, forced as they often need to be.

Even if the Vietnam/American War has been milked dry by Hollywood, The Sympathizer succeeds on the basis of savvy storytelling and themes of identity and loyalty that resonate strongly even now, in an age of displacement, exploitation, mistrust and human disconnect.

All in, a refreshing change from typical fare even if it may be too dark and unsettling in places for binge viewing. And, while this is billed as a (seven-episode) limited series, do note that the novel has a sequel. So, don't write off the Captain's story as one-and-done just yet.

New episodes of The Sympathizer arrive on HBO every Monday.

8 10


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