Park Chan-Wook Wanted to Direct All of ‘The Sympathizer’

If you felt the instinct to pause, rewind, or repeat part of the premiere to HBO’s “The Sympathizer” on its April 14 premiere, showrunner Park Chan-Wook is one step ahead of you.

The Korean director best known for films like “Oldboy” and “The Handmaiden” and the recent “Decision to Leave” was a critical mind in shaping “The Sympathizer,” based on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s bestseller, which required anticipating how the audience would receive the story. In Episode 1, we meet our unnamed protagonist, The Captain (Hoa Xuande), whose interrogation frames the flashbacks that follow.

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The Captain’s confession was one element of adapting Nguyen’s story, Park told IndieWire over Zoom with a translator, but the second piece of that framework was particularly exciting: The Commandant’s (Quinn Hoàng) interruptions.

“Sometimes the commandant might get angry at the captain, or sometimes be criticizing — that is how he engages himself in this storytelling,” he said. “The commandant is questioning about this confession as a reader himself, so in a metaphorical sense it’s similar to the viewer going, ‘What’s going on here? What happened here?’ and then stopping the show and rewinding it and looking at it again. That’s exactly what our Commandant is doing. That all helps in seeing the story unfold, keeping a bit of distance, the right amount of distance. We will be engaged and we will be sucked in to the story, and then right when we feel like we’re getting involved in the story, it will be interrupted.”

What begins to fall into place is a cheeky dynamic between prisoner and captor, with the Captain drawing the Commandant into his narrative as much as into who he is and his ideology. Like so many of Park’s films, “The Sympathizer” recognizes that even enmity is a relationship between people, that spending time together, even as the Captain and Commandant do, is a twisted form of bonding. Even where there is mistrust, there is begrudging fascination.

“The commandant himself, without him knowing, is getting mesmerized by whatever the captain is sharing,” he added. “I think that all speaks to the fascinating storytelling capability the Captain has, and the ups and downs and the great life story.”

Park directed the first three parts of the seven-episode series, which premieres weekly on HBO — but only out of necessity.

“Truth be told, I wanted to direct all seven of them,” he said. “But the reality is I also knew that it would be physically impossible. Having written and directed all six episodes of ‘The Little Drummer Girl,’ I knew back then that that was my limitation in a sense of the physical demand that it takes.”

As is often the case with television, “The Sympathizer” also required Park to be writing later episodes while filming earlier scenes, solidifying his decision to step back. He loves every episode for its own reasons, but pragmatism won out.

“What is ultimately important is for our viewers to be engaged in this series and not lose interest and stop watching the show,” he said. “I felt like that was ultimately what was demanded of a showrunner, so that was why I arrived at the conclusion that I would take on the first three episodes.”

“The Sympathizer” is now streaming on HBO with new episodes every Sunday.

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