With more than our own fair share of political headaches to navigate the last four years, you’d be forgiven for not following the saga around the 2017 assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s older brother, Kim Jong-nam. The presumed heir to their father Kim Jong-il’s dictatorship, he was murdered in a brazen and somewhat confusing attack in broad daylight in the middle of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Two women approach him separately, snuck up behind him and wrapped their hands around his face (like someone playing a “Guess who?” game) and rubbed a deadly poison directly into his eyes. He was dead within an hour, and the women were long gone.
The death made international news, at first because of the notoriety of the victim. But soon, as details emerged about the women who attacked him and how the assassination came to be, the details in the case made it seem more like something out of a crime novel than real life. Documentarian Ryan White (Ask Dr. Ruth, Good Ol’ Freda, The Case Against 8) unpacks all the sordid details in Assassins, offering enough of a history lesson on North Korean politics to place the drama while following the trial of the two women eventually arrested for their role in the bizarre and tragic crime. It’s a captivating film that deftly unravels the story of the investigation and the circumstances leading up to the murder that, if it weren’t all there in CCTV footage, agency reports and testimony, would be too strange to be believed.
Though Kim Jong-nam’s death and the subsequent investigation, trial and its outcomes are public knowledge (and easily discovered through any simple web search), going into Assassins knowing as little as possible about the case will only help one truly appreciate the care White takes to build a film that walks its viewers step by step through every twist and turn. The filmmaker makes the deliberate choice to tell the story of Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong, the two women who carried out the deadly attack on Kim, rather than dig into any number of other interesting angles surrounding the event (including the widely accepted belief that his death was ordered by younger brother Kim Jong-il himself). While exploring how they came to be involved, under what pretenses they carried out the crime and how the Malaysian courts responded to the deadly events, the film makes the case that forces far beyond their control conspired to execute a politically motivated murder in the middle of the day.
It’s frankly remarkable the number of narrative threads White manages to weave together in this complicated story. Washington Post journalist Anna Fifield serves as a strong grounding point for the uninitiated; her familiarity with the region and history of reporting on the Kim dynasty goes a long way to add context and perspective to the overarching significance of both the events themselves and how they transpired. White not only features Aisyah and Huong themselves, but interviews their parents as well, as confused as anyone as to how their daughters found themselves caught up with a conspiracy to assassinate someone as prominent as Kim Jong-nam. And with the help of investigators assigned to the case and the lawyers defending Aisyah and Huong, the film unpacks with forensic precision exactly what happened minute-by-minute the day Kim was attacked.
In a pop-culture moment when a true-crime documentary, podcast, book or article is never far away, an exceptional work like Assassins should rightfully move to the front of any To See list. Where others rehash a story that’s been told a million times or take a take-by-numbers approach to their subject matter, White’s film is both an intriguing look at an unexpected political drama and a deeply thoughtful exploration of the ripple effects of that drama on the unsuspecting.
Assassins is now streaming via virtual cinemas, including at Music Box Theatre. A portion of your rental goes to support the theater while it’s closed.
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