When the Hollywood adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer” was announced, there were concerns. Published in 2015 to critical acclaim, the debut novel examined the aftermath of what Americans call the Vietnam War but which Vietnamese know as the American War. It did this through “a layered immigrant tale told in the wry, confessional voice of a ‘man of two minds’—and two countries.” Blending psychological thriller, war story, political satire, personal reflection, and identity exploration, the complex narrative unfolds through the fractured perspective of a man still discovering who he is and what he believes.

Luckily, the adaptation was entrusted to Park Chan-wook. The acclaimed South Korean filmmaker behind movies like “Oldboy,” “The Handmaiden,” and more has spent decades blending beauty and ugliness, genres and literary layers, to profound effect. He also directed the 2018 miniseries adaptation of the John le Carré spy novel “The Little Drummer Girl.” Partnering with showrunner Don McKellar, Park has crafted an ambitious and faithful adaptation of “The Sympathizer” for television. Premiering on April 14, the new series matches the brilliance of Nguyen’s source material.

While the story begins months before the fall of Saigon in 1975, we first meet the protagonist, known only as the Captain (Hoa Xuande), in a communist reeducation camp years later, rewriting his confession for Vietnam’s new leadership. As a member of the South Vietnamese secret police working closely with the CIA, the Captain—a communist sympathizer—spied on counterrevolutionary activities for the Viet Cong. “Comrade, everything I did was to advance the cause,” he insists to the camp’s brusque commandant, who demands yet another version with more detail.

This revised account forms the basis of most the series’ narrative, justifying Park and McKellar’s occasional use of Nguyen’s first-person prose as voiceover. Four months after witnessing the interrogation of a female communist spy in a cinema, the Captain helps his pompous boss, the General (Toan Le), organize an airborne escape from Saigon amid little real help from departing American allies. While the Captain would prefer to stay, his handler Man (Duy Nguyen) orders him to follow the General into exile and report back. Only by securing a flight out for their “blood brother” Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan) can the Captain and Man keep their friend safe.

Like a picaresque tale, the adaptation works well as a television serial. Once settled in Los Angeles, subsequent episodes depict bloody missions the Captain carries out, as well as a sitcom-style workplace storyline and a darkly comic episode involving the Captain’s work on an Apocalypse Now-inspired film set. Park and McKellar stick the landing, preserving the journey of self-discovery from Nguyen’s novel without relying too heavily on graphic violence.

Central is the enigmatic Captain’s own presence. The son of a Vietnamese woman and French man who doesn’t claim him, he’s an outsider to his countrymen and a curiosity to Americans. Able to ingratiate himself through performance of agreeability, he can espouse divergent ideologies in a convincing manner as an effective spy, yet remains committed to nothing as a “sympathizer” to all sides. Only his allegiance to Bon and Man, who once protected him from bullying, remains unshakeable. Xuande gives a chameleonic performance capturing this complex character.

His antithesis throughout is Robert Downey Jr., who plays every white man who takes the Captain under his wing. First a eccentric CIA agent, then an Orientalist college chair, a pandering congressman, and the swaggering filmmaker behind the Apocalypse Now parody—every face of American influence shares the same features in Downey’s roles. Like the performances and source material, this adaptation has layers, conveying depth beyond a single message through its visuals, music, and interrogation of identity, representation, and what truly matters in deadly conflicts.