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Park Chan-wook Wrestles with the influence of Hollywood

May 31, 2024
  • Source by KoBiz
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In The Sympathizer, Park Chan-wook wrestles with the influence of Hollywood. by Miriam Balanescu


 The contributions of external writers may differ from the opinions of KoBiz & KOFIC, and they do not represent the official views of KOFIC.  


"I like telling big stories through small, artificially created worlds," director Park Chan-wook said on the set of Stoker (2013), the auteur's first English-language film. His latest, The Sympathizer (2024), does exactly that: it deals with the vast topic of the war in Vietnam, but through the limited perspective of a communist undercover agent. It manages to create a claustrophobic, sometimes airtight atmosphere - with its relatively contained cast (Robert Downey Jr. plays four roles), multilayered use of flashbacks and the tunnel vision of its unreliable narrator - all of which perfectly encapsulate the oppressive, miry situation its protagonist finds himself in.


Because of its immense scope in both subject and location - encompassing communist and capitalist politics, Vietnam and America, the war on "the battlefield" and in "memory" - the series is perhaps set apart from the rest of Park's filmography, but in it he still brings his meticulous, hyper-stylized approach to bear.


Adapted from the novel of the same name by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the series follows an anonymous Captain (Hoa Xuande) in the counter-revolutionary secret police in Vietnam - who also happens to be a mole for the Northern forces, siphoning back information as they progress determinedly towards Saigon. The first episode tails the Captain as he works to sabotage his superiors in the secret police while the city falls to communism, opening with a graphic showing a Vietnam divided into North and South. On the map, Hanoi and Saigon are the only cities marked. The text alongside reads: "In America it is called the Vietnam War. In Vietnam it is called the American War.“



These bewildering gulfs between politics, identity and points of view are at the crux of The Sympathizer. The emphasis on a split country immediately brings to mind a divided Korea, the subject of Joint Security Area (2000), Park's third but first critically and commercially successful film, which he considers his true debut. The movie is set in the Korean Demilitarized Zone and, like his recent HBO drama, also tussles with messy allegiances, the repercussions of being able to sympathize with two different sides in a society torn apart by opposing politics. In an interview, Park asserted that South Korea's struggle for democracy in the 1980s provided the backbone for his and fellow Korean directors' interest in class and ideology. That focus is certainly evident in The Sympathizer.


In films like Decision to Leave (2022) or Oldboy (2003), Park has become known for sprawling, often unwieldy plotlines and knotty perspectives. To add another layer (or set of layers) to The Sympathizer, the series is framed by the Captain's present-day viewpoint recounting his time as a mole, detained in a communist reeducation center. He is also mixed race, his father one of the "French colonizers" alluded to in the show's introduction, who the North defeated. When asked by his communist "handler" Man (Duy Nguyen) to go with the General (Toan Le) to America to keep him in check, the rift he feels against those around him is thrown into a different kind of relief to the one he experienced back home.



But even in Vietnam, America's presence is still deeply felt. The series demonstrates that that's not just through the military, but culture, specifically cinema. The very first full scene shows the Captain waiting outside one in Saigon for a CIA agent (one of Downey Jr.'s many roles) to meet him - they are supposedly about to watch the exploitation flick Death Wish (1974). In a wry - even slightly on-the-nose - twist, the cinema is actually closed to the public; inside is an interrogation center, not unlike a torture chamber, run by the secret police. The divide in Park's latest is not so much between North and South as East and West, which, as he demonstrates, is a far less clearcut demarcation than meets the eye.


Though it may initially seem unlikely, Hollywood - in the show, portrayed as the West's biggest propaganda machine - is The Sympathizer's final destination. The Captain is steadily headed on a trajectory towards it. At the insistence of the CIA agent, he eventually winds up as a consultant on a Napa County-filmed movie set in Vietnam. Park is certainly no stranger to the realm of Hollywood; action, thriller and crime genres are his usual terrain and he counts among his influences Martin Scorsese and Alfred Hitchcock.


Yet here he calls the supposed heart of the film industry into question, with Hollywood's dismal representation and racist treatment of Asian actors under the lens. The Captain is enlisted to vet a script in which the Vietnamese characters are initially given no lines; the extras hired are not Vietnamese; and the director (also acted by Downey Jr.) dreams up a scene in which a young Vietnamese woman is assaulted - "like everyone in your country". There are obvious nods to Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), as a carefully constructed set is blitzed by fighter planes, and even The Godfather (1972), as a worryingly eccentric method actor leaves a decapitated deer's head to be discovered in the director's bed. But this cinematic legacy is conjured up to evoke discomfort, rather than awe.


LikePark's unofficial "vengeance trilogy", which leaned into the plot arcs of Western revenge tragedies while ultimately showing the futility of punishing one's enemies, his latest brings a self-awareness to the well-worn high-budget spy caper. The Sympathizer has Park's typical sense of extremity and oodles of his pitch-black humor. There are also plenty of the director's trademark visual flourishes, from canny scene transitions (like a telephone rotary dial becoming a car tire, wallpaper becoming a bamboo forest) to favorite images, such as the shell of a hard-boiled egg splintering as it's rolled against a table (also found in Stoker).


However, here Park's characteristic style feels in tension with a slicker, more smoothed-out Hollywood sensibility. Park's films tend to be sparing on dialogue and patient with transitions, but The Sympathizer is undercut by a suave, pacey script and an almost breathless speed. The glossiness of American shows of this strain is here troubled by cinematographer Kim Ji-yong's handheld, often deliberately disorienting camerawork, much like in Park's greater filmography. Likewise, Park keeps his careful, angular composition and high-contrast, luxuriant color palette in scenes filmed in Vietnam, while American scenes intentionally feel more neutral, dulled even.




"A film director asks questions of the audience," Park told Future Movies upon the release of Lady Vengeance in 2006. "And modern audiences often fail to respond to questions being asked. So, you have to use shocking and stimulating things to stimulate them [] In an action movie they want more cars to be smashed. I think it's the same when you're asked philosophical questions, artistic questions or moral questions. You need more stimulation for them to respond. So, I'm a kind of film director who smashes one more car if you like!"


In The Sympathizer, the viewer's hunger for this explosiveness is satirized. The din of fireworks, the shock of bombs (both real and movie fake) and the racket of gunfire distract from the equally deadly but silent maneuverings of leaders and the decisions they make unheard behind closed doors. Park is a director who steers clear of overexplaining, preferring to leave "many things as questions, so it leads the audience to find answers for themselves".


Park is also a director who leaves the heavy lifting to his "subconscious", imbuing his work with a fantastical quality. In The Sympathizer, this comes in the form of Downey Jr., nearly buried beneath various cosmetics, at one point sat around one table as four different characters, each an American colonialist in differing ways. In the rest of his oeuvre, Park has advocated for exploring humanity's darkest notions and fantasies onscreen, and, in The Sympathizer, this presents itself as American imperialism.



About the writer

Miriam Balanescu is a writer and culture critic based in London and Cambridge. Her keen interest as a critic spans across various media such as film, literature, and cultue in general. She has written reviews and critiques for The GuardianBBC CultureSight and SoundThe EconomistThe Independent and many more. As a writer she also published a series of short stories in streetcakeStand and The Airgonaut. She was selected as one of the 2022-23 cohort of National Centre for Writing’s Escalator programme.

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