Dear Gossips,   

The Sympathizer premiere happened in Hollywood yesterday with Robert Downey Jr and Sandra Oh as the most high-profile cast members in attendance. 


This series is a major priority for HBO, an ambitious project, based on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. And the talent behind-the-scenes is equally as impressive. Auteur director Park Chan-wook is the co-showrunning alongside Don McKellar. In other words, The Sympathizer has been adapted by a Korean and a Canadian, and I mention this because the story is set against the backdrop of what is known as the Vietnam War, even though Vietnamese people refer to it as the American War. And that’s how Hollywood has, up to this point, largely characterised the conflict – so many of the films and television shows about that period are told through the eyes of Americans, of white people, and not the Vietnamese. The Sympathizer aims to change that as the story is told through the experiences of the lead character, the Captain, played by Hoa Xuande, and supported by a large cast featuring several ethnically Vietnamese actors. 


As for the white actors, and Robert Downey Jr in particular, Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar use him strategically. Per TIME Magazine:

“Another key decision that Park made was to have several of the white American characters—a Congressman, a filmmaker, a professor, a CIA agent—be played by one single actor. Park hoped to drive home a conceit central to The Sympathizer: that imperialist systems of power are entwined and overlapping. Park's top choice was Robert Downey Jr., who agreed to take on the multifaceted challenge and serve as an executive producer with his wife Susan Downey, under the banner of their production company Team Downey. Downey Jr.'s presence also adds a meta layer of meaning. Many viewers, especially younger ones, know him best as Iron Man, whom Marvel's Stan Lee envisioned as the "quintessential capitalist": a billionaire fighting communism and supplying arms to the U.S. military. Iron Man was first introduced in a 1963 comic, fighting in Vietnam alongside Americans against the racist caricature Wong-Chu, the "red guerrilla tyrant."


Here's RDJ with Sandra Oh on the carpet last night: 

 Sandra Oh and Robert Downey Jr. at the Los Angeles premiere of "The Sympathizer" held at the Paramount Theatre on April 9, 2024 in Los Angeles, California

And here he is with veteran actress Kieu Chinh – many of you will recognise her from The Joy Luck Club – who will be in Toronto, along with Don McKellar and Hoa Xuande for the Canadian premiere of The Sympathizer at TIFF tomorrow night, an event that will have layers and layers of meaning for Kieu. Kieu plays the Major’s mother in the series, a woman who, unlike her son, is having a hard time adjusting to life in America.

US actor/executive producer Robert Downey Jr. (R) and US-Vietnamese actress Kieu Chinh arrive for HBO's original limited series premiere of "The Sympathizer" at the Paramount Theatre in Los Angeles, April 9, 2024

Kieu understands that experience all to well. When I interviewed her yesterday for ETALK, she told me the story of how she came to leave Vietnam (which she also writes about in her book). Kieu was an award-winning and successful actress in Asia (she also had a role on M*A*S*H) just prior to the fall of South Vietnam. She had been filming in Singapore and flew home as the crisis was escalating even though her family was pleading with her not to return. Once she arrived, the situation was chaotic and her husband encouraged her to use her diplomatic passport and leave Vietnam and join their children who were already safely overseas. A friend was able to get her a ticket out on the last Vietnam Airlines flight but when she got to the airport, rocket attacks halted all takeoffs. She camped out for a day in the airport, stranded with thousands of other people, until her friend basically dragged her onto a Pan Am flight with American personnel headed for Singapore – she had no seat on the plane, she sat on the floor, and when she got to Singapore she was thrown in jail because her passport was no longer valid; the government that issued her passport had fallen. 


Film contacts in Singapore with whom she’d been working prior to the fall of South Vietnam were able to get her out of jail and buy her a plane ticket that would take her from destination to destination across East Asia and then west. For four days she airport hopped with no internationally recognised citizenship until the fall of South Vietnam was official – at that point she could enter another country as a refugee. 

Which is what happened on April 30, 1975 when she arrived… in Toronto. She told me she walked up to the immigration officer, he stamped her documents, and said: 

“Welcome! You are the very first Vietnamese refugee in Toronto!”


Imagine then what Thursday will mean for Kieu, given her history with Toronto, and now she’s coming back to premiere a series that spotlights the perspectives and struggles of Vietnamese people during the American War…!?!

It’ll be one of the most extraordinary full circle moments ever. 

Yours in gossip,