peteg's blog - noise - movies - 2024 05 29 TheSympathizer

The Sympathizer (2024)

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Prompted by Jason Di Rosso's interview with Kiều Chinh (that probably basked in the afterglow of Alice Rohrwacher's) and being reminded that Park Chan-wook was a major contributor to the production (while quietly ignoring the recent evidence that he is far better at movies than TV). Also for Melburnian lead Hoa Xuande (who I found out later was in Careless Love). My low expectations from the novel were reinforced by the dire IMDB rating (about 7/10 and dropping rapidly).

Briefly: it goes mostly as I remember from the book. We're in the final days of a never-been-cleaner Sài Gòn before heading to mid-1970s Los Angeles with some erstwhile members of the ARVN and associated entities. Our narrator-hero "The Captain" is a spook with divided loyalties. It never settles into any particular genre, swerving amongst sitcom, parody/satire, (b)romance, heavy serious drama, spy thriller, social commentary and so on while never being as clever as it needed to be. Was the point to be excruciated?

The general failure to grip is no fault of the cast, for the most part. Xuande is fine in the lead and I was pleasantly surprised by Sandra Oh's performance as an Oriental Studies secretary (lame though her character is). Fred Nguyen Khan was great as Bon, perhaps because his was the most bullshit free of the main roles. David Duchovny! Oh my. And then we get to Robert Downey Jr, who is always about the same. I imagine he watched Alec Guinness's antics in Kind Hearts and Coronets and figured he too could handle the multi-role thing. Well, news flash! He can't. By episode four Park has ceased to direct and RDJr has slipped his leash; what is essentially a clone of Hearts of Darkness could just possibly have functioned as a homage to the recently-passed Eleanor Coppola if it was in any way funny or inventive. Further souring the deal is the faint whiff of Tropic Thunder where everyone was younger and better at high science.

Wikipedia suggests that Park was not the first Korean filmmaker to go to Việt Nam. I was a little surprised to find that John Woo wasn't the first from Hong Kong; his Bullet to the Head is structurally very similar (too similar) to this. But of course the creators of The Sympathizer mostly drew on Sergio Leone's immortal Once Upon a Time in America. They passed up more opportunities than they took to play with identities ala David Lynch despite this setting being a very natural home for that conceit.

While it's great that so much of the dialogue in this mainstream American (HBO) production is in Vietnamese it didn't occur to the creators that the Vietnamese themselves may have wanted to talk about something other than the war (or that we too might want to hear them talk about things other than the war). The following graph from Harvard's Growth Lab illustrates the rise in complexity of Việt Nam's economy alongside the (relative) decline in Australia's for context:

Australia v Vietnam economic complexity

The Sympathizer is so safe, so conservative, so far from the crass but raw danger of (Australian, don't mention the war) Romper Stomper of 1992. It says so much less about Vietnamese culture and the immigrant experience than Andrew X. Pham's Catfish and Mandala from 1999 and Nam Le's The Boat of 2008. It disallows the nuance of foreigners' accounts of living in Việt Nam and engaging with the locals such as Dana Sachs's memoir from 2000. Viet Thanh Nguyen, writing in 2015 and executive-producing now, is still just riffing on those (Western) exploitation flicks of the 1970s and 1980s that we all enjoy so much. It completely fails to grapple with the country and its people's development, aspirations, achievements and, of course, complex, opaque and troubling-to-the-West politics. (Coincidentally I was in the country when those lines crossed.)

Can we expect a sequel? Perhaps Nugyen is still occupied with figuring out how to follow up The Committed.

Reviews seem to be uniformly positive. I rest my case.