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Park Chan-wook adds comedy to his version of 'The Sympathizer'

By Kim Da-sol

Published : April 18, 2024 - 18:14

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Director Park Chan-wook speaks about his latest series, Director Park Chan-wook speaks about his latest series, "The Sympathizer," during a press conference held at the Megabox Coex in Seoul on Thursday. (Yonhap)

South Korean auteur director Park Chan-wook said he focused on adding comedic elements to his latest series, “The Sympathizer.”

The HBO original series, which is currently streaming via Coupang Play, is based on the 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same title by Vietnamese-American author Viet Thanh Nguyen.

"To add a cinematic methodology to a series production, it was important for me to set up a special narrative and add humor when it comes to the ironic, paradoxical situations throughout the episodes... something that's less logical and even pitiful," Park said at a press conference that followed the media screening of the first two episodes of "The Sympathizer."

“The Sympathizer” is Park’s first work since winning the Best Director Award at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival with “Decision to Leave,” and his second international drama series after BBC original “The Little Drummer Girl” (2018).

While comedy is what differentiates his script from the novel, Park tried to maintain the novel's mood with its element of irrationality, he explained.

“I told the actors to remember the story's paradox while acting. This is not a simple drama and what’s seen on the outside is not everything. I told them to always remember what’s on the opposite end of the exterior,” Park added.

“The Sympathizer” tells the story of the Captain (Hoa Xuande), a man who serves as a North Vietnamese mole in the South Vietnamese Army. As the war nears its end in the 1970s, he flees to the US where he joins the CIA, becoming a double agent. He then returns to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause.

Park said he studied “seriously” about the author’s intention for the novel.

"As a Korean director, it’s not that I have to add Korean element to this story, but modern history tells commonalities (between Korea and Vietnam). So I studied the geopolitical and historical elements seriously," he said.

Park directed the first three of the seven episodes. He was also the co-showrunner along with Don McKellar, who helmed the overall process of production, script and production.

"Directing and writing the screenplay for all seven episodes was too much of a burden for me. As a showrunner, I had the privilege to hire the directors who could draw this story in a similar mood or the opposite mood," he said.

While the majority of the scenes are set in Vietnam, shooting took place in Thailand.

Filming on location overseas was not difficult for Park, but what proved difficult was the casting of Vietnamese actors, he said. More than 50 percent of the lines in the first two episodes are in Vietnamese.

"More than several thousand auditioned for the Vietnamese roles, and many were not actors. For example, an actor who played a general was a designer from Disney. It was a difficult process for me to not just discover them but also place trust in them," he said. "It required a significant amount of courage."

"What's hard about overseas projects is that I'm sometimes haunted by the thought, 'What if these actors just run away – because they're inexperienced?' On the other hand, it was worth working with them because I could see their acting improve throughout shooting," he added.

"It's great that the majority of this HBO-funded mega scale project is in Vietnamese, although it is somewhat belated," Park said.

The show boasts a stellar cast that includes Oscar-winning Robert Downey Jr., who plays four different antagonist characters, Korean-Canadian actor Sandra Oh and Vietnamese-American actor Kieu Chinh.

“The Sympathizer” is currently streaming on Coupang Play with new episodes released every Monday at 8 p.m.

Park Chan-wook most recently participated in Netflix's original period flick, "War and Revolt," as an executive producer, He is also set to produce a TV series adaptation of his film "Oldboy" in English in collaboration with Hollywood production company Lionsgate.

"The Sympathizer" (Coupang Play)