“The Sympathizer” director wanted to depict the fall of Saigon in ‘a serious, grave manner’

Park Chan-wook, novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, and star Hoa Xuande discuss the premiere episode's harrowing climax.

Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Sympathizer episode 1, "Death Wish."

The Sympathizer begins at the end of the Vietnam War. In the HBO show adapted from Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel of the same name, viewers first meet Hoa Xuande’s nameless Captain in the final days of the conflict between North and South Vietnam. The premiere episode ends with a harrowing recreation of a historical scene rarely depicted in American media, where the final American troops departed the country and communist forces unified both the northern and southern regions.

“I was actually there for the fall of Saigon. But I was four years old, so I don't remember anything,” Nguyen tells Entertainment Weekly. “I had to recreate it. So I did a lot of research about everything that was available so that I could literally tell the story month to month, day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, second to second.”

<p>Hopper Stone/HBO</p> Hoa Xuande in 'The Sympathizer'

Hopper Stone/HBO

Hoa Xuande in 'The Sympathizer'

As Nguyen’s experience demonstrates, the fall of Saigon is still in living memory for many people in Vietnam, America, and elsewhere. That necessitates a responsibility to get this cinematic depiction correct, especially since this moment has so rarely been represented by Hollywood.

Many Vietnam War movies, like Platoon or Apocalypse Now, are set in the midst of the war, while other Vietnam-set films like the Rambo franchise take place after the war. The American military failed to achieve its objectives in Vietnam, and perhaps the moment of defeat (where soldiers and refugees piled onto retreating helicopters) remains embarrassing for our culture. But it’s an important moment in world history, and in many people’s lives.

“When I was preparing for this moment, I went about it in a very serious, grave manner,” The Sympathizer director Park Chan-wook tells EW, “because there are a lot of people who went through this traumatic experience still living today. And there are even more people who are alive now who have heard of this moment, including a lot of our own cast members. So even though the shooting happened in this fabricated set where we had the background of a green screen, when the cast members started to perform, they really got emotional and they were really filled with tears.”

Nguyen’s detailed account of the fall of Saigon in The Sympathizer novel provided Park and his team with a handy blueprint for putting it on screen, but Xuande still wasn’t prepared for what the scene would feel like.

“It's the end of Chapter Three where this happens in the novel, and I found myself rereading that moment so many times that I remember even the way that Viet details certain moments, like how the captain slides in to check in on Bon and Duke and Lynn,” Xuande says. “So for me to do that scene on the tarmac that night, I didn't feel like I had to work so hard. We had half a Hercules plane built on the tarmac, and they loaded it on the truck and they pulled away as we were shooting this thing, then they had makeshift explosions and it was dark. To be put in that situation, to be almost doing these things... it didn't take me much to really feel that moment.”

<p>Hopper Stone/HBO</p> Hoa Xuande, Duy Nguyen, Fred Nguyen Khan in 'The Sympathizer'

Hopper Stone/HBO

Hoa Xuande, Duy Nguyen, Fred Nguyen Khan in 'The Sympathizer'

The Captain is a communist spy embedded with South Vietnamese forces. Though he wants to stay behind and enjoy the fruits of communist victory, he’s ordered by his best friend Man (Duy Nguyễn) to accompany his targets back to America and continue spying on their activities. In doing so, he witnesses a horrible tragedy of violence when his other best friend Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan), a fierce anti-communist, loses his wife and infant child to stray gunfire in the escape. What should be a euphoric victory for the protagonist thus becomes a horrific nightmare.

“Is he really being rewarded for the liberation of his country with the loss of his godson? Is this the sacrifice that you have to pay for freedom? Is that worth the price?” Xuande says. “Those questions permeate the rest of the Captain’s journey.”

New episodes of The Sympathizer air Sundays on HBO and Max.

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