THE SYMPATHIZER is an espionage thriller and cross-culture satire miniseries based on a novel of the same name. Park Chan-wook and Robert Downey Jr. team up for this one. Read our The Sympathizer series review here!

THE SYMPATHIZER is a new HBO Original series that will be on HBO and stream on Max. It’s a satirical thriller with an espionage plot. It all plays out at the end of the Vietnam War and the years following.

There are 7 episodes in this limited series, and the cast is rather spectacular. Okay, I’m thinking specifically of Sandra Oh, when I use the word “spectacular”. But really, isn’t she just always great?! Hint: The question is rhetorical as the answer is always a resounding yes.

You can continue reading our The Sympathizer series review below. As always, there are no spoilers – not beyond what the trailer has already revealed, anyway.

Based on a Pulitzer-winning novel

I have not read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, so I cannot speak to whether this adaption follows the book. However, from what I’ve read about the book and seen in the series, it seems to follow the story fairly much.

The Sympathizer is clearly meant to be satirical, so even though it gets very brutal at times – we do begin at the end of a very deadly war, after all – it has many quirky moments.

This is an espionage thriller where we follow the struggles of the half-French, half-Vietnamese communist spy, The Captain (Hoa Xuande). He leaves Vietnam during the final days (moments, almost) of the Vietnam War.

From Vietnam, he goes to the US, where his new life as a refugee in Los Angeles begins. This is also where he finds out that his spying days are far from over. Having the main character be from Vietnam and then placed in Los Angeles does make for quite a lot of cross-culture satire.

Not least focused on the fascination of all things “oriental”. Yes, it irks me whenever a character says “oriental”, but it’s equally infuriating that no one seems to care whether an Asian person is from Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, or Japan. It’s all the same to them. Some things still haven’t changed!

The Sympathizer – Review | HBO/Max Espionage Thriller Series

The Robert Downey Jr. show

Let me preface the next by saying that I’ve always liked Robert Downey Jr., so I was happy to see him starring in The Sympathizer series. Unfortunately, there is a tonal shift whenever one of his characters is on-screen.

And he does play a whopping four different characters, which I liked, as it plays to the whole “they all look the same”-notion that many people seem to have about people, not of their own race. And yes, white people are particularly bad at this.

My issue with these characters is that they are very over-the-top. Robert Downey Jr. is great, but it does turn into the Robert Downey Jr. show for me, whenever he’s in a scene. This is an issue as the topic is also quite serious.

So, while The Sympathizer is clearly a very somber, yet satirical look, at how Hollywood has been obsessing over the Vietnam War for decades, this one has a nice change in the point of view. I mean, we’ve rarely heard anything about the experience from the point of anyone Vietnamese.

Whether still in Vietnam or immigrated to the US after the war.

That changes with The Sympathizer and yet, whenever a Robert Downey Jr. character shows up, we’re right back on the white man’s trail. While I feel that this is part of the point of his characters, it doesn’t quite nail its punchline. Not for me, anyway.

Fortunately, we also have Sandra Oh in a key role, and she always makes me happy. So do virtually all the Vietnamese characters. They are mostly refugees, who had full and rich lives in Vietnam and now struggle to embrace their U.S. Life.

In part because they really do not feel welcome. And, largely, aren’t welcome. I prefer it when the series focuses on them, but I recognize that the whole cross-culture satire requires both Vietnamese and white Americans to be at the center of many storylines.

Watch The Sympathizer series on HBO and Max

The Sympathizer co-showrunners are Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) and Don McKellar. Of course, we’re big fans of Park Chan-wook here at Heaven of Horror as we love his genre productions. Obviously, this HBO/Max production is something very different.

In fact, it’s so different that I cannot see or feel Park Chan-wook’s involvement whatsoever. Given that he directed three episodes, this is quite a shame. The remaining episodes are directed by Marc Munden (The Third Day) and Fernando Meirelles (Sugar), who directed three and one of the episodes respectively.

Even though I found myself disappointed, I have to note that it had more to do with my own expectations than the quality of this series.

Also, I did appreciate seeing a post-Vietnam War world from the POV of the Vietnamese. We see a world divided by race, ideology, and culture, but not from the side of US veterans as has often been the case. Check it out for yourself and see if it works for you – at the very least, Sandra Oh will!

THE SYMPATHIZER debuts on Sunday, April 14, 2024. It’s on HBO at 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT and will be available to stream on Max.


Showrunners: Park Chan-wook & Don McKellar
Directors: Park Chan-wook, Fernando Meirelles, Marc Munden
Writers: Mark Richard, Naomi Iizuka, Maegan Houang, Anchuli Felicia King, Tea Ho
Cast: Hoa Xuande, Fred Nguyen Khan, Toan Le, Phanxine, Vy Le, Ky Duyen, Kieu Chinh, Duy Nguyen, Alan Trong, Sandra Oh, Robert Downey Jr.


Near the end of the Vietnam War, a spy who was embedded in the South Vietnam army flees to the United States and takes up residence in a refugee community, where he continues to gather intelligence and report back to the Viet Cong.

I write reviews and recaps on Heaven of Horror. And yes, it does happen that I find myself screaming, when watching a good horror movie. I love psychological horror, survival horror and kick-ass women. Also, I have a huge soft spot for a good horror-comedy. Oh yeah, and I absolutely HATE when animals are harmed in movies, so I will immediately think less of any movie, where animals are harmed for entertainment (even if the animals are just really good actors). Fortunately, horror doesn't use this nearly as much as comedy. And people assume horror lovers are the messed up ones. Go figure!
Karina "ScreamQueen" Adelgaard
Latest posts by Karina "ScreamQueen" Adelgaard (see all)