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‘The Sympathizer’ about the Vietnam War and their own family legacy




'The Sympathizer' about the Vietnam War and their own family legacy

About a month ago, “The Sympathizer” star Fred Nguyen Khan lost his grandmother.

She was a Vietnamese refugee who sought asylum in Canada and endured a “staggered escape,” leaving her and her siblings terrified that they would not survive or see each other again. But without the show, in which Khan now plays a refugee himself, he might never have heard that story.

Set near the end of the Vietnam War, “The Sympathizer” follows a captain in the US-backed South Vietnamese Army (Hoa Xuande) who secretly spies for the North Vietnamese communists. As Saigon falls and the US withdraws, the Captain (as he is known everywhere) remains embedded and escapes to Los Angeles, remaining at his side reporting on the actions of the General (Toan Le) and his men – including one of his men. best friends, Bon (Khan), who knows nothing of the captain’s true politics. The captain recounts his espionage experiences in the form of a written confession after he is captured and imprisoned and is plagued by his own conflicting beliefs: his loyalty to his original cause and his understanding of the beliefs of people he has betrayed for years. War, it turns out, is never black and white.

And it often leads to a culture of silence.

“People of that generation don’t like to talk about the traumas they have endured. They like to bottle it up. The only way they can deal with it is: they work hard. They get results,” said Khan, who grew up in Montreal. In an interview with three of his cast mates, Khan recalls that revisiting this moment in history provided an important moment of catharsis for some of the show’s older actors: “There’s a lot of crying, there’s a lot of hugging and then it really starts. to talk about it. It was a big breakthrough for a lot of people, and even for my family. Once I finished the show, I was able to ask questions. [My grandmother] sat us all down and told us the story of how they escaped. I didn’t know what it was like, because as a child you don’t ask that.”

From left to right: Duy Nguyễn as man, Fred Nguyen Khan as Bon, Hoa Xuande as captain

“The Sympathizer,” which premieres April 14 on HBO and Max, is based on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2015 novel of the same name, which won a Pulitzer Prize and is widely praised for reversing the perspective on the war that has plagued the U.S. media generally prefer. The book was never published in Vietnam. Although the government has never issued an official ban, what the author wrote about his inability to penetrate the bureaucracy thus far, saying it is “obvious” that “the enormous obstacles” he faces in his efforts to get “The Sympathizer” into the country are political.

Duy Nguyễn – who plays the captain’s handler and best friend, Man – grew up in Hanoi in the culture that spawned these obstacles.

“When I first read the book, I was actually angry,” he says. “What I learned in Vietnam is only one side of the truth – just like American films. I thought, ‘You can’t do this! That’s not the doctrine!’ But then I read it again. And I read it again. And I read it again.”

“I understand that deep down, despite the political spectrum, whatever – these are just people,” he continues. “Their actions are what they think is best for their country. Neither is right or wrong. I am a completely changed person after all the research I have done. By the end I have become the sympathizer.

“My parents, I remember them telling stories from the past, and you always ignore it,” says Xuande. “Now that I’m an adult, I was ignorant of these parts of the story that are really part of who I am today. I’m a little ashamed that I never really took that part of my parents’ story seriously.”

Sandra Oh, who plays the captain’s eventual girlfriend, Sofia Mori, challenges Xuande: “I always want you to be kind to yourself. Because the shame of not knowing history actually comes from a deep need to assimilate. There are complexities about why we assimilate the way we do, and what we must reject just to survive. But what is very, very healing is embodying the story that has not yet been told.”

Take it from her character: Sofia “believes that she is a very liberated woman, a very progressive woman. But through this series you see her starting to question her identity and wonder where she actually came from,” says Oh. Although her character is Japanese, while Oh is the daughter of Korean immigrants, she relates to the way Sofia’s life changes after she realizes how she has prioritized her Americanness above all else.

“It is Ms. Mori who questions her own hypocrisy, and I always do that. Here I am, an Asian American woman of this era – you have to do this all the time, wondering where you stand and how deep you actually go. Almost everyone has generations of trauma, and people don’t want to talk about it. My parents lived through an occupation and two world wars and then emigrated here. They don’t talk about it.”

Sandra Oh as Sofia Mori

“The Sympathizer” also allowed its cast to satirize the role American culture has played in sweeping their family history under the rug. In one episode, the captain works as a cultural consultant on the set of a Hollywood movie about the war with a not-so-subtle resemblance to Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”

The film is directed by a character played by Robert Downey Jr., who also plays almost every white role on the show in a series of dramatic transformations. As the director specifically praises Xuande Downey for “embodying the cultural institution that was Hollywood for a while: telling stories that didn’t necessarily belong to Hollywood, and shaping them in a way that was palatable to a very Western-oriented audience that didn’t did. “Don’t necessarily listen to or care about the source’s perspectives.”

“It was such a brilliant directorial choice, that casting,” Oh says of Downey’s five roles. “The persona and who Robert is, and who he has represented in other characters – you can’t help but feel that this gives the sense that he’s playing these archetypes of Western white patriarchy.”

In particular, she notes how Downey’s years of playing Marvel’s Iron Man — a character who works in weapons manufacturing — colors her view of his performance in “The Sympathizer.”

“Here you are, bringing history to life, again, these archetypal pillars of education, of art and culture, of politics, of espionage, of government. It pushed all the satire. He has so much power as an actor. He is willing to do that to go in the satire, he is willing for his character to do that to go in racism.”

Although “The Sympathizer” is billed as a limited series, the cast seems open to more. The material is certainly there, as Nguyen published a sequel in 2021 titled “The Composed.”

“There are some things I feel like I can’t talk about yet because this is a series of books. Viet has not finished the third book yet,” says Oh. “But I think he’s also interested in exploring a lot more of where Ms. Mori comes from.”

That would also allow for more depth and backstory to the brotherhood between the Captain, Bon and Man, who cut their palms together in childhood as a vow of devotion. That oath distorts and stretches over time in an attempt to accommodate the political divisions that arise between three characters. It is their bonds with each other now that the war is over and Vietnam is transforming that gives “The Sympathizer” its title.

“To speak of the bond between blood brothers, the chosen family – I came to Montreal alone. I longed for a family here in Canada, and then I found Fred,” says Nguyễn, adding he and Khan’s friendship predates their casting on the show. “I immediately thought, ‘Okay, he’s my family now.'”

“I’m glad we can show that,” he concludes in tears. “No matter who you are, you can still treat other people like people.”