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The Sympathizer - What We Know So Far

Whether it's classics like "Platoon" or "Full Metal Jacket" or more contemporary entries like "Da 5 Bloods" or "The Greatest Beer Run Ever," cinema is full of films that have explored the Vietnam War from the perspective of the Americans who fought it. It's much rarer to see an American movie or TV show about the war from the perspective of the Vietnamese — but that's what HBO will be doing with its upcoming series "The Sympathizer."

"The Sympathizer" is equal parts espionage thriller, love story, and sociopolitical commentary. It's based on a debut novel of the same name by Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won the Pulitzer Prize for it. It's also a personal story for Nguyen. His parents grew up in North Vietnam, then fled to the South after the Communist takeover in the 1950's. Then, when North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam, Nguyen's family escaped to the United States, like the main character in his novel does. "I wanted to write a novel that was actually entertaining, that people would actually want to read because I knew that I would also be dealing with a lot of very serious political and literary matters," Nguyen told NPR.

A spy thriller that's actually thought-provoking? Sounds like a show that would be right at home on HBO. Here's everything we know so far about "The Sympathizer."

What's the release date for The Sympathizer?

"The Sympathizer" doesn't have a release date yet, but it shouldn't be too far off.

Viet Thanh Nguyen's novel on which the series is based was published in 2015. In April 2021, Deadline announced that HBO had purchased the rights to the book to adapt it into a TV show, to be produced by A24 and Rhombus Media. In July, Deadline then reported that HBO had given "The Sympathizer" a series pickup, while also announcing that Robert Downey Jr. and Park Chan-wook had come aboard — more on that below.

The Film & Television Industry Alliance website currently lists "The Sympathizer" as "in production," with filming beginning in September 2022. It's being filmed in both Los Angeles and Vietnam. Given that "The Sympathizer" is now being shot, most likely it will premiere sometime in 2023 — but we'll update this with more information as it becomes available.

What's the plot of The Sympathizer?

As mentioned above, "The Sympathizer" will be an adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen's 2015 novel of the same name. It's described as a satirical drama that explores the impact of the Vietnam War as well as the realities of living a cross-cultural life.

Per The Hollywood Reporter, the story follows a nameless officer in the South Vietnamese army referred to as "The Captain." In the final days of the war in 1975, the Captain finds himself working as a spy for the Viet Cong. Once the war ends, the Captain relocates to Southern California and becomes entangled in the Vietnamese refugee community. Naturally, the Captain finds it difficult to escape his past. He gets a job as a military advisor on a "Platoon"-esque Vietnam War film, but this doesn't place him above suspicion as an enemy to the South Vietnamese cause. Ultimately, the Captain will be tasked with leading an actual military raid on Vietnam, with the goal of starting a revolution.

Who's in the cast of The Sympathizer?

Robert Downey Jr. headlines the cast. As reported by The Hollywood Reporter, he'll be playing three supporting roles who each represent "the American establishment." These include a conservative Orange County congressman, a CIA officer, and the director of the war film. Downey Jr. is also co-executive producing the series.

In addition to Downey, Hoa Xuande will be playing the Captain. He previously played Lin in the "Cowboy Bebop" TV series in 2021 (per IMDb). Joining him is Fred Nguyen Khan in the role of Bon, the Captain's childhood friend and someone who "finds new meaning in the most unlikely of places and circumstances." Toan Le will be playing "the General," a former commander in the South Vietnamese army who's fanatically devoted to rooting out traitors to South Vietnam. Complicating matters is the fact that the General has a fetching daughter, Lana, who's played by Vy Lee. Finally, Alan Trong will be playing Sonny, the idealistic editor of a Vietnamese-language newspaper who will serve as a comedic foil for the Captain (via The Hollywood Reporter).

In November 2022, Deadline reported the addition of three more cast members, the most notable being Sandra Oh of "Killing Eve" and "Grey's Anatomy" fame. According to the trade, she'll be playing Ms. Sofia Mori, "a liberated feminist who in the midst of a love triangle begins to awaken to the complexity of her own Asian-American identity." She'll be joined by Kieu Chinh of "The Joy Luck Club" as the mom of a character called the Major and Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen of "The Rich Woman" as the General's wife.

Who's directing and showrunning The Sympathizer?

In April, Viet Thanh Nguyen announced that South Korean director Park Chan-wook would be directing the series. This was a huge get for Nguyen, who said that Park's film "Oldboy" was a major inspiration for his novel. "Oldboy" is a revenge tale about a man who's imprisoned in a hotel room for 15 years, then escapes and sets out to punish his captors. Park also directed "The Handmaiden," "Stoker," and the "Vengeance" trilogy. Overall, Park's films are known for their stylish violence and black humor, which would seem to make him a great fit for this project (via Deadline). 

In addition to directing, Park Chan-wook will be "The Sympathizer's" co-showrunner, alongside Don McKellar. McKellar is a prolific actor, director, screenwriter, and playwright who previously wrote the scripts for the films "Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould," "The Red Violin," and "Blindness." Both will also serve as executive producers. (per Deadline).