June 21st, 2024

Sandra Oh says ‘Sympathizer’ tells a side of Vietnam War ‘we’ve been waiting to hear’

By Alex Nino Gheciu, The Canadian Press on April 11, 2024.

Actors Hoa Xuande (left) and Robert Downey Jr. (right) are shown in a scene from the television show "The Sympathizer." THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Crave **MANDATORY CREDIT**

There have been countless U.S. screen projects about the Vietnam War but Sandra Oh says HBO’s espionage thriller “The Sympathizer” offers “a perspective we have been waiting to hear.”

The miniseries centres on a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist spy during the final days of the war who acts as a mole within a refugee community in Los Angeles.

“It questions the history of what we’ve been presented for the past 50 years. I feel like there’s ways to relate that to what’s happening now,” the Ontario-born actor says on a video call from Los Angeles.

“Here is a traumatic event of war that is now being explored through the missing perspective and the truth and questioning about the American system and the American white patriarchy that has been in charge of telling the Vietnam War story.”

Oh stars as liberated feminist Sofia Mori, who becomes romantically involved with the spy protagonist, known simply as the Captain. The seven-part series explores the fallout of the Vietnam War from the secret agent’s eyes as he goes undercover as a refugee in Southern California. The part-thriller, part-dark comedy premieres Sunday on Crave.

“The Sympathizer” is an adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. Like the book, the series is narrated by the Captain, played by Vietnamese-Australian actor Hoa Xuande, as he writes a confession in a communist re-education camp. Robert Downey Jr. plays four different Americans the spy encounters on his journey, including a CIA operative, a congressman, a professor and a movie director.

Besides the Korean-Canadian Oh, there’s plenty of CanCon here: Niv Fichman of Toronto-based Rhombus Media is among the executive producers, Montreal actors Fred Nguyen Khan and Duy Nguyen are among the largely Vietnamese cast, and Toronto writer-producer Don McKellar serves as an executive producer, writer and co-showrunner.

“I have strong associations in my childhood memory of the early ’70s, Watergate, Vietnam and the cultural shift that happened at that time,” says the 60-year-old McKellar, whose screenwriting credits date back some 25 years to “Roadkill” and “Highway 61.”

“I remember my political development as a teenager and how I sort of flirted with communism and was Captain-like for a while.”

McKellar says the story feels relevant today, as there are “pretty obvious parallels” between the Vietnam War and the wars in Ukraine and Gaza.

“It just seemed very fresh to me to show the story from the Vietnamese side and to flip it around on American viewers. It seemed like an important reminder of how to approach wars even now, when we see them on television, when we see them reported,” he says.

“It seems very simple, but just to remind people that there’s another side, and that the primary victims of any war are always the people on whose land it is fought. That’s often forgotten.”

Xuande, who appeared in a video call alongside Oh, says he won the lead role after eight months of auditions.

“It was honestly the longest, most arduous, most difficult process of an audition that I’ve ever been through. I kind of don’t really wish it on anybody, but what it told me was also just how much the production cared about telling the story and finding the right people to be able to tell this story,” says the 36-year-old, who starred in Netflix’s 2021 live-action adaptation of anime “Cowboy Bebop.”

Xuande says he was “deeply moved” by Nguyen’s novel because it depicted a side of the Vietnamese refugee experience that’s rarely shown in the mainstream. While doing research for his role, he was also moved by the many stories of Vietnamese people whose lives were affected by the war.

“There were so many people who were down in the trenches fighting that you never heard about, and the civilians that literally were just trying to survive, not wanting to be involved in the conflict in any way but couldn’t help but be absolutely torn apart,” he says.

“It’s kind of relevant now and that’s what I carried with me throughout the shoot.”

McKellar says the decision to have Downey play four characters came from discussions he and series creator Park Chan-wook had over how “the older patriarchal American establishment figures” in Nguyen’s novel all had similar relationships with the Captain.

“They’re all mentors, but unreliable mentors, and they’re all a little patronizing and slightly absurd. We were talking about how it was important thematically to show they were all interdependent in some way, and that there was a point for repetition. And, then (Chan-wook) said one day, “What if we just cast one actor (for them) like Peter Sellers in “˜Dr. Strangelove’ and “˜Lolita’?'”

McKellar says Downey loved the idea right away.

“Hewas top of our list and there are very few actors who could do it, who made sense. He was immediately into it and he took it very seriously. I had long conversations with him about his personal influences on all the characters and how he wanted to ground them. He was in pretty deep right from the start.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 11, 2024.

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