South Korean director Park Chan-wook returns to the world of prestige TV with The Sympathizer

South Korean director Park Chan-wook returns to the world of prestige TV with The Sympathizer
  • PublishedApril 26, 2024

Few names in Korean cinema are more revered than Park Chan-wook.

A meticulous filmmaker of genre-bending thrillers, morality plays and stylish literary adaptations – often all at once – the director has now returned to the world of prestige TV.

His latest miniseries is The Sympathizer, an adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

The narrative is recounted in a series of forced confessions by its protagonist, the Captain (Australian breakout star Hoa Xuande). A mixed-race communist spy initially sent to Los Angeles to report on counter-revolutionary activity following the end of the Vietnam War (or, as the show reminds us, the American War if you’re Vietnamese), he’s since become imprisoned in a re-education camp.

Arguably more a picaresque satire than a taut spy game, the Captain’s mission becomes increasingly enshrouded in a haze of nihilism and paranoia, drifting between his role as a trusted confidant, assassin, and even a cultural consultant on an ambitious war movie set. He is aimless and stranded from home, at the whims of insufferable American bozos (four antagonistic forces, including a CIA handler and a Francis Ford Coppola stand-in, are played extravagantly by Robert Downey Jr.).

Director Park, on the other hand, appears to have suffered fewer compromises throughout the process of filming The Sympathizer.

Crossing cultures

Hollywood has always been in the business of courting international auteurs – a practice that previously fortified the reputation of Alfred Hitchcock, the British master of suspense who was an inspiration for Park.

In a New York Times interview, he recalls his formative first viewing of Vertigo: “During the movie, I found myself screaming in my head, ‘If I don’t at least try to become a movie director, I will seriously regret it when I’m lying in my deathbed!'”

The resulting marriage, between Hollywood and international filmmakers, can be tenuous, however: Park’s long-time friend and collaborator, Bong Joon-ho (Parasite), has faced years of delays on upcoming western film and TV projects following his historic Oscar wins, including his hyped Robert Pattinson vehicle Mickey 17.

Rian Johnson bows down to Park Chan-wook on the Golden Globes red carpet. Park has his arm outstretched and smiles brightly.
Star Wars director Rian Johnson bowed down to Park at the 2023 Golden Globes, where Park’s latest film was up for best foreign language movie.(Getty Images: Frazer Harrison/WireImage)

Yet ever since Park’s first English language project Stoker (a psychosexual family drama that saw Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman vying for a coolly charming murderer), he has managed to successfully translate his visual idiosyncrasies, tragicomic tonal balance and thematic preoccupations across new borders and formats.

In the early 00s, the peak of the video rental store, Korean genre cinema was more of a cult obsession than a mainstream international phenomenon. Often exoticised for their artful approach to lurid excess, the films of Park, Bong, and Kim Jee-woon (I Saw the Devil) rose to prominence among thrill-seekers, horror hounds and curious cinephiles, often accompanied by Quentin Tarantino’s effusive stamp of approval.

Much like the unfortunate Catholic priest in Park’s 2009 vampire romance Thirst, mainstream audiences across the world appear to have developed a greater taste for blood.

Alongside the phenomena of K-dramas and K-pop, Korean genre fare has been lifted by the ever-rising tide of Hallyu (aka “The Korean Wave”), fuelled by the rapid globalisation of culture online via millennial and gen Z cinephiles.

Online hype has increasingly circulated around Park’s work, attuning a broader audience to his wickedly off-kilter sensibility.

Stoker’s gothic chic lustre was virtually tailor-made for Tumblr, while The Handmaiden has been celebrated as an all-too-rare lesbian thriller, especially one with an unconventionally happy ending.

When morality meets comedy

Beyond Park’s affinity for adaptation, which extends back to his 2000 breakout Joint Security Area, the exacting precision of his filmmaking remains intact through virtuosic camera movements and sly editing tricks.

Yet on top of their propulsive plotting, razor-sharp tension and carnal qualities, his filmography can be seen as one continual, deeply ambivalent exploration of morality, often expressed through pitch-black comedy.

A Vietnamese man in a military uniform rides a motorbike
The bumbling, out-of-touch and increasingly paranoid General (Toan Le) provides a lot of absurdist comedy to The Sympathizer.(Supplied: Binge)

In his loosely defined “vengeance trilogy” — which consists of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2005) — Park revelled in the absurdity of seeking justice in a senseless world. In Lady Vengeance, the sense of abstracting reality coincided with its gradually de-saturating colour palette; its final scenes, which depict a group of parents calmly orchestrating the execution of a serial child murderer, are steeped in stark monochrome.

Unsurprisingly, the source material of The Sympathizer complements Park’s overarching interests. Watching the contradictions of the Captain’s identity unspool is never less than gripping, extending beyond its espionage trappings to thoughtfully interrogate the inherent tensions underlying Vietnamese nationalism and the diaspora.

If nothing else, the show serves as a reminder of how stunningly styleless other television can be. Cigarette burns seamlessly merge into raining fire; piercing zooms slowly suffocate the Californian landscape into tight compositions with nowhere to run; pulpy brutality is doled out in grimly enticing bursts.

The series only truly falters in one particular casting decision – not in its relative newcomer Xuande, who admirably conveys interiority underneath layers of competing identities and a deep-rooted uncertainty, but in Downey Jr.

A film still of Robert Downey Jr, in a bald cap and wig, talking at a bar to a blurred Hoa Xuande, a Vietnamese Australian man.
In The Sympathizer, Robert Downey Jr plays several antagonist roles, including a CIA agent, a professor, a filmmaker and a congressman.(Supplied: Binge/Hopper Stone)

The former MCU muse excels in effortless cool and frazzled neuroticism, not capital-A acting. His award-winning pivot in Oppenheimer felt like pure bluster, and his channelling of Park’s sense of humour here robs it of its quietly discomfiting qualities in favour of camera-mugging farce. In particular, his performance as a gay college professor of oriental studies channels the spirit of Tropic Thunder’s Kirk Lazarus.

As media companies tighten their belts, streaming services have largely become reticent to hand over hefty TV budgets to distinctive arthouse filmmakers like they once did with Luca Guadagnino (We Are Who We Are) and Nicholas Winding Refn (Too Old to Die Young).

If The Sympathizer is the last streaming blockbuster we get from Park Chan-wook, it at least makes for a stunning reminder of TV’s potential as a broad canvas, upon which voracious artists can create astonishing work.


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