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In war saga 'The Sympathizer,' Vietnamese voices are no longer stuck in the background

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In war saga 'The Sympathizer,' Vietnamese voices are no longer stuck in the background
April 15, 2024
TERRY TANG - AP

Vietnamese journalist-turned-filmmaker Phanxinê remembers exactly when he decided to make movies in his native country rather than Hollywood.

It was in 2008 but it could have been a satirical scene out of the Vietnam Era-novel “The Sympathizer.” Someone from a movie studio visiting his University of Southern California film class told him his story pitch about a Vietnamese American woman traveling the U.S. would only work if the heroine was white.

Having a white star would give the film “a broader audience,” Phanxinê recounts being told.

“It is the moment I realized that if I want to stay in America, I have to do a movie about Caucasian people," said Phanxinê, who goes by a one-name moniker professionally. The reason I want to be a filmmaker is because I want to tell the story that I know the story about my people, my country, my culture.”

Now, over 15 years later, Phanxinê is doing his first U.S.-side professional acting job in HBO's adaptation of “The Sympathizer” with an ensemble of fellow Vietnamese actors.

For decades, Vietnamese people often have been relegated to the background in popular cinematic depictions of the Vietnam War. Films like “Full Metal Jacket” and “Apocalypse Now” typically only examined the price the U.S. and its soldiers paid.

In the adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that premiered Sunday, it is South Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers' struggles with loss, loyalty and identity that take center stage. For some cast members, there were initial concerns about stirring up what was a traumatic time even for their own families. But, they are not shying away from feeling a sense of responsibility in shaping the narrative.

Sprinkled with drama, comedy and espionage, the series follows a half French, half Vietnamese spy for the Viet Cong known as The Captain. Played by Hoa Xuande, Captain embeds himself with South Vietnamese people, even becoming part of a post-war refugee community that settles in Los Angeles. Robert Downey Jr., who is also a producer, plays four different white antagonists. Sandra Oh also co-stars.

Phanxinê, who plays Major, an assistant to a South Vietnamese general who also relocates to the U.S., actually wanted to keep his involvement with the series private for as long as possible to put off any political backlash. Even now in Vietnam, any media touching on the war is scrutinized heavily. The book faced difficulties getting published in Vietnam because of its portrayal of what Vietnamese see more as “The American War." Even some friends advised him not to take part in the project.

“During the shoot, I met several people really upset about how the Vietnamese American (are) portrayed in this series. And I totally understand that,” Phanxinê said. "I think what comes will come."

Fred Nguyen Khan plays Bon, a South Vietnamese soldier whose character suffers a great loss. He was among several who filmed a harrowing re-enactment of the fall of Saigon. Khan, 41, acknowledged the show could be triggering for some of his relatives. But, that doesn't have to be a bad thing.

“I think it’s going to be a real cathartic moment for a lot of them. And if we can just talk about it afterwards and start healing that, I think that that’s a win,” Khan said.

The production actually helped him connect more with his heritage. The Canadian-born actor refreshed his knowledge of the Vietnamese language. When Khan returned from the eight-month shoot in Thailand, he threw his parents with his heightened fluency.

“It was like I got so much better. It’s like I went through this training montage from the ‘Rocky’ movies,” Khan said. “I felt a really new appreciation to the Vietnamese culture by being exposed around all these amazing Vietnamese actors. And that’s something that I never felt before — coming from Montreal, Quebec.”

Vietnamese people are almost erased in a lot of movies, documentaries and history books on the war, said Long T. Bui, a professor of global and international studies at the University of California, Irvine. They also fail to show how perspectives can vary within the community between those who identify as South Vietnamese versus the North.

“People are hoping that ‘The Sympathizer’ is a success, but also that it will open the doors for more movies and TV shows about the Vietnamese American experience,” said Bui, who is acquainted with Nguyen, the author. “So people are hoping that this is this is the gateway.”

Phanxinê, who is a well-known filmmaker in Vietnam, has watched several Hollywood pictures like “Apocalypse Now,” “Born on the Fourth of July” and, more recently, “Da 5 Bloods.” Some of them seemed “ridiculous” to him.

“I can see still American filmmakers, when they do a movie about Vietnam War, they still don’t really look at the world like how Vietnamese people look at it,” he said.

For Khan, the only Vietnamese actors he can recall seeing growing up were Thuy Trang, who was the yellow Power Ranger, and Dustin Nguyen ("21 Jump Street"). He knows some Vietnamese viewers and actors may be looking to this show to push progress forward with fleshed-out, flawed characters.

“They should have expectations. If you have no expectations, then you’re not excited about it,” Khan said. “I have expectations, too.”

___

Tang is a Phoenix-based member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at @ttangAP.

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