‘The Sympathizer’ cast, director discuss new series that shows the Vietnam War through a Vietnamese lens

DUBAI: “The Sympathizer,” HBO’s latest spy drama streaming in the Middle East on OSN Plus, is based on Vietnamese-US author Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel.

It tells the story of a double agent known to the audience only as the Captain (Hoa Xuande), a North Vietnam operative who is a plant in the South Vietnam army. After he is forced to flee to the US and take up residence in a refugee camp, he continues to spy for the Viet Cong.  

Speaking to Arab News in a virtual interview, Xuande, an Australian actor of Vietnamese descent, talked about digging into the dual nature of his character and the struggle it creates.

“It is important to remember that the Captain is a human being and he’s trying to play to survive. And, obviously, the struggle of war, and trying to save his people, and trying to find the best outcome for the people that he cares about, and trying to not rock the boat so much.

“And, so, I really tried to dig deep into the facts of the period of the time. And I tried to figure out the psychology of what people were thinking and the ideologies that were spinning around at the time,” he said.

The show was also an opportunity for Xuande to reconnect with his people’s past.

“I’ve been so used to being told what Vietnamese people are or the stories that even my parents grew up telling me, you know. Their perspectives were always generally lost, right? Depictions of the war were always depicted through the Western perspective,” he said.

“I always knew what the war was about. But I really wanted to get deep into the stories that that we’ve never heard before. And I did a lot of YouTubing and reading of articles. And, so, once you learn those stories, you start to appreciate that Vietnamese people — who bore the brunt of the trauma of this war — have never really had their voices heard. That weighed heavily on me. And so, I tried to carry this throughout much of the show, playing the Captain. And I guess that kind of made me appreciate my own history that I haven’t really learned about before.”

Veteran Korean director Park Chan-Wook, the name behind cult classics such as “Oldboy” and “The Handmaiden,” oversaw the new adaptation. Park directed the first three parts of the seven-episode series, which premieres weekly on OSN Plus. The show also stars and is executive produced by Robert Downey Jr.

“‘Sympathizer’ is a story about identity and this individual having two kinds of minds and two kinds of identities. I’m drawn to that kind of story because the story is dealing about an individual who wants to be someone else while there is certainly some other identity within him. Or it might be a case of him being forced to become someone else than who he really is,” said Park.

“So, whenever that kind of situation is forced upon him, he has to put on a mask. And then at some point that mask eventually becomes his identity itself. So, the story is dealing with how certain tragedy or comedy happens because of that kind of situation. And I feel like I’m certainly drawn into that kind of story.”

Sandra Oh, an American Canadian actress born to South Korean immigrants and best known for her roles in shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Killing Eve,” plays the character of Sofia Mori, a liberal feminist who, in the midst of a complicated love triangle, begins to realize her own complicity in the racism suffered by her people.

“From my character’s perspective, to play a character who is representing a very Asian American character, who is a liberal in her own way, and who is a defiant woman in her own way… But throughout the series, I tried to show how through her relationship with the Captain and the love triangle that you’ll see comes about in the series, she starts to question how she has also been complicit in the very thing that she is fighting against, against the patriarchy and against the racism. You see how much she’s internalized and is starting to question the internalization,” said Oh.

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