Hoa Xuande and Robert Downey Jr. in HBO's "The Sympathizer."

Hoa Xuande and Robert Downey Jr. in HBO's "The Sympathizer." Credit: HBO/Hopper Stone/SMPSP

SERIES "The Sympathizer"

WHERE|WHEN Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO; streaming on Max

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In the spring of 1975, members of the South Vietnamese Army are scrambling to leave Saigon before the Viet Cong move in. They include a corrupt, buffoonish and cruel general (Toan Le) and the high-ranking member of the secret police who has been charged with doing the general's dirty work, known as the “Captain” (Hoa Xuande, “A Stitch in Time”). The Captain also has a secret — he's a double agent and spy for the North Vietnamese. This seven-parter — created by acclaimed South Korean film director Park Chan-wook and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen — also stars Robert Downey Jr., who plays four characters: The Captain's CIA handler, a college professor, a U.S. senator and a movie director.


MY SAY “The Sympathizer'' could be one of the last of those distinctive HBO-style series of yore — complicated, sprawling, literary and (very) expensive, much like “The Regime,” which wrapped its six-part run last Sunday. Park completed filming before the writers' strike, but the post-strike mandate at HBO (pretty much everywhere else too) has been: Make it simple, make it popular, make it accessible. 

In fact, “The Sympathizer” is accessible, but does require a reversal of perspective on the viewer's part. This unfolds in a post-1975 Los Angeles, with the unfathomable tragedy of a forever war still ongoing. Remnants of the SVN army have fled to the refugee community in Los Angeles, some still fighting (ideologically anyway) a rear-guard action. “The Sympathizer” takes place on the other side of the looking glass, or in their upside down world — for once, a Vietnamese perspective on the injustice and horror of that forever war.

Xuande's Captain threads his way effortlessly but never easily among the expats. A pariah himself, he's neither fully Vietnamese, nor western (his father was French). As a spy, his loyalties are also divided except that they primarily rest with a VC apparatchik back in Ho Chi Minh City. Unable to choose a homeland or for that matter an identity, he's like Hamlet's murdered father, or a “wandering ghost” — in the words of a friend (soon to be a victim) — who is eternally condemned to wander between two worlds.

Along with a bit of Shakespeare, there's some Graham Greene and lots of movie homage too. Downey's CIA handler almost jumps off the page of some novel (“Our Man in Havana?”), as an instantly recognizable archetype, in his tropical leisure suit and world-weary cynicism. His eyes are rheumy and vacant, his voice a slow and menacing drawl. He's dangerous and (worse) utterly depraved. Downey clearly has a ball toggling between his various personae and you should have fun watching him/them. Together they star in one of the more memorable scenes on TV of the whole year, as four Downey's, each unapologetically in character. They include a Strangelovian politician who looks like Sen. Pat Geary from “The Godfather Part Two” and the movie director, a hybrid of Burt Reynolds' Jack Horner from “Boogie Nights” and Al Pacino's "Scarface."

You can't take your eyes off them, which can be a problem — hardly fatal — because they push “The Sympathizer '' in the direction of a farce whenever on-screen. “The Sympathizer '' has a bleak sense of humor, and clearly savors the found comedy of '70s-era Hollywood. But this is no farce, and instead a tragedy, with the horror just out of sight, tugging at the corners of the screen. Park, crew and cast (David Duchovny and Sandra Oh also have memorable roles) have done something remarkable here, something terrifying too. Park never wants you to forget that. 

BOTTOM LINE Brilliant, unsettling, entertaining.

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