HomeEntertainmentIn ‘The Sympathizer,’ the Vietnam War from a Vietnamese perspective

In ‘The Sympathizer,’ the Vietnam War from a Vietnamese perspective

When I interviewed novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen for The Washington Post early last year, he noted that the American conception of war tends to involve battles, soldiers, guns, and specific beginning and end dates. From his experience growing up as a refugee of the Vietnam War, however, the reality of conflict can be much more subtle and uncertain.

“The war didn’t end simply because there was a declaration of the end of the fighting,” he said. “For the Vietnamese of both sides the war very definitely continued in different ways, either because they fled as refugees, or they stayed behind as prisoners, or stayed behind as the defeated or the left behind. And for the victorious Vietnamese the war continued by other means as well, because the Vietnamese government was still invested in trying to repress their defeated foes.”

It was this postwar struggle that informed his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer,” which has now been adapted to the small screen in a joint venture between A24 and HBO.

The miniseries boasts impressive talent on both sides of the camera. Helmed by the renowned Korean director Park Chan-wook, the cast includes up-and-comer Hoa Xuande in the nameless lead role, Sandra Oh as his romantic interest, and Robert Downey Jr. as … all the White guys. They were filming when I spoke with Nguyen, who was enthusiastic about the care put into bringing an authentically Vietnamese presence to the production, saying Chan-wook’s direction portrayed Asian characters “in all their complexity, not either as villains or victims, but as people capable of doing all kinds of things good and bad,” and that he brought to the project a deep awareness of the historical and political circumstances underpinning the narrative.

But for many viewers, that history is likely less familiar. Next April brings the 50th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon — the officially recognized end of the war — and the American memory of this tumultuous period is remote and fading. Even those who were there and remember it well may not fully grasp its complexities, particularly from the Vietnamese perspective.

The central conflict in “The Sympathizer” is not American vs. Vietnamese, but Vietnamese vs. Vietnamese. This was the case for the wider Vietnam War as well, for it was in fact a civil war in which the Americans merely became entangled for all manner of dubious reasons. The United States may have produced the biggest budget films about the war, but we were really the third wheel in its story. At the heart of it was the age-old opposition of neighbors battling over what kind of society they want to live in.

On one side there was the government of South Vietnam, where Saigon had long been a stronghold of French then American interests. During the first half of the war its anti-communist president, Ngo Dinh Diem, was known for his brutality and susceptibility to foreign influence, which resulted in his CIA-backed assassination in 1963. General Nguyen Van Thieu emerged as president following the coup in a reign that was characterized by corruption. South Vietnam’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was armed and trained by the United States, but proved to be insufficient when American forces withdrew two years before the war’s on-paper end. All told, the South and its allies endeavored to reclaim and maintain a prewar status quo, and failed disastrously.

North Vietnam, on the other hand, was led by Ho Chi Minh, a French, Soviet and Chinese-educated Leninist-Marxist who enjoyed popular support during his life and has attained almost godlike status within the country today. Before the war, his leadership in ousting Japanese and French colonizers — along with no small amount of savvy PR work — established him as the de facto moral figurehead for Vietnamese both north and south. During his waning years and then following his death in 1969, party leadership was assumed by a cadre of communist officers who proved to be some of the most able military minds of the modern era. The North and its insurgent forces scattered throughout the South sought to bring about a nationalist revolution, and succeeded.

The war theoretically spanned 1955-1975, but only from an American point of view. For the Vietnamese, the conflict was a much more significant sprawl. They had already been fighting the French for a decade when the Americans showed up, went on to fight the Cambodians immediately afterward, then continued to sporadically lock horns with the Chinese for over a decade to come. For all practical purposes, Vietnam was at war from 1946 until 1991, and that’s just within the country itself.

This mind-set of seemingly perpetual war was carried to the United States by Vietnamese refugees following the Fall of Saigon, who fled the reprisals and “reeducation” programs of the communist victors. Among them was four-year-old Viet Thanh Nguyen, for whom “the war continued very vividly through the 70s and the 80s” while his family settled into the Vietnamese diaspora in the United States. Forty years later, Nguyen’s acclaimed novel would tell the story of a communist double agent who infiltrates this exiled community to maintain the war on U.S. soil, where defeated Vietnamese officers plot the reconquest of their homeland.

Upon returning to that homeland, however, the agent is brought face to face with the violent oppression of the ideology for which he has struggled. This, too, expresses a key aspect of the war that many Americans don’t understand.

Our education system doesn’t paint a very clear portrait of Ho Chi Minh, often portraying him as a tyrant rather than the widely beloved figure he was. For many Vietnamese, the communism of “Uncle Ho” represented a vital escape from colonial rule. But while their desire for an alternative is understandable, once the country was reunified under communism, retribution against the South was fast and harsh. Land redistribution ruined many families; artists and intellectuals were stifled and often outright killed; political opponents were tortured and murdered; and over the coming decades the country was plagued by famine, poverty and the suppression of free speech. Today, Vietnam operates under a one-party system where media is strictly controlled, too many journalists, artists, and activists languish in prison, the infrastructure is underdeveloped, and many struggle to put food on the table.

Suffice it to say that reality has diverged from the aspiration. Everybody lost.

Getting back to the book and its screen adaptation, Nguyen’s double agent, his “sympathizer,” is afflicted with the ability to appreciate both sides of the conflict, having experienced the best and worst of what each has to offer. He is consequently in the difficult position of being simultaneous ally and enemy to all involved. For him, everyone is right and everyone is wrong.

And this is precisely this conundrum that strikes at a core truth of the Vietnam War: Depending on one’s vantage, each cause was as justifiable as it was condemnable. All and sundry were ultimately working for and against themselves.

Judging from the talent and consideration that has gone into the production of “The Sympathizer” limited series, it’s likely that viewers will thoroughly enjoy it sans this context. Equipped with an awareness of the history behind it, however, perhaps they will not only take away a deeper understanding of its narrative, but can play some small part in guiding the future away from such catastrophes.

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