Anyone who knows me well has heard of my utter obsession with all things North Korea. Late at night, I can be found diving deep into Korea-Holes on the internet, reading interviews with defectors, clicking on smuggled-out videos of public executions, or watching documentaries about the Hermit Kingdom. My heart goes out to the population made up essentially of 25 million prisoners in their own country. The reports of human rights abuses remain consistent with the tenure of its current “Dear Leader”, Kim Jong-un. The horrors occurring outside of the state-sanctioned tourist routes paint a picture of a ruthless dictator who will stop at nothing to maintain complete control of his citizens. Even his own family members aren’t safe. Witness the killing of his uncle as one example.
It’s with another murder, of Kim Jong-nam, the leader’s half-brother, that acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Ryan White (Good Ol’ Freda, The Keepers, The Case Against 8) trained his camera on one of the most jaw-dropping and diabolical public assassinations of modern times. Naturally, I inhaled this film, Assassins, the moment I got my grubby hands on it.
Kim Jong-nam, the oldest child of Kim-Jong-il and thus, the heir apparent to the Kim Dynasty, had been living in exile since 2003. His ousting came as a result of attempting to visit Disneyland Tokyo with his children, although he would later say it was based more on his criticism of the regime. Either way, in 2017, Kim Jong-nam had a highly toxic chemical agent applied to his face in the Malaysia International Airport’s departure hall, which was caught on security camera footage. This brazen act led to his death within an hour.
Shortly thereafter, police arrested two women, strangers to each other, for the assassination. Siti and Doan, Indonesian and Vietnamese immigrants respectively, admitted to being hired to commit the act, but they thought they had participated in a prank video. The two women, financially struggling, had been filming pranks for some time before this fateful day. They claimed they had no idea they had been asked to approach such a high profile target. They thought the chemical agent was a hand lotion they had used in prior videos. With a trial and the death penalty on the line, I won’t spoil what happens next, but suffice it to say, it’s evil stuff.
Similar to what happened with Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist murdered at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in 2018, Kim Jong-nam’s assassination orders appeared to come from the highest levels of government. Additionally, in both cases, the current U.S. President turned a blind eye, even going so far as to later cozy up to Kim Jong-un and declare they were “in love”.
Lost in the shuffle with their lives hanging in the balance, Siti and Doan remain the primary focus of this hugely empathetic film. White exposes the vulnerability of women who move to countries like Malaysia to make a better life for themselves. Both young and vibrant with career aspirations, the pair fell victim to a nefarious group of men who had groomed them for some time. Prosecutors maintained that the women knew exactly what they were doing. White uses a mixture of existing footage, interviews with journalists and lawyers, as well as a generous amount of time spent exploring Siti and Doan’s lives. While the details of the case alone make this an edge-of-your-seat viewing experience, White beautifully layers it with the bigger issues of society’s treatment of women, immigrants, and of those in power who will sell anybody out to remain in office. As much as I constantly research North Korea, I had forgotten the twists and turns of this particular case, especially the ultimate outcome. White not only uses great skill in relaying those plot points, but he also makes you care deeply for the two women. Able to send a chill down your spine while also reducing you to tears, Assassins, is a suspenseful page-turner, heart-tugger, and one of the best documentaries of the year.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Assassins opened in theaters and virtual cinemas on December 11th and will be available on Premium Video On Demand (PVOD) on January 15th 2021.