'Assassins': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
A shocking collision of geopolitical gamesmanship and ruthless exploitation.

Ryan White’s absorbing doc delving into the 2017 assassination of North Korea’s most famous exile plays like a conspiracy thriller pulled from the annals of '50s Cold War conflicts.

In mid-February 2017, shocking news began breaking on broadcast and online outlets worldwide: Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, had been killed in an audacious public assassination at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport. Even more surprising perhaps, the suspected murderers were two nondescript young women, one Indonesian and the other Vietnamese.

Caught on airport security cameras, the petite assailants hardly appear to be trained killers executing some shadowy rogue operation, which incredibly involved the use of VX, a highly toxic nerve agent banned worldwide. Once police take them into custody and charge them with Kim Jong-nam’s murder, the account that eventually emerges instead suggests a sprawling international conspiracy stretching from Pyongyang to Macau before violently concluding in Malaysia with the death of North Korea’s most famous exile.

Pivoting 180 degrees from the humorous humanism of his 2019 bio-doc Ask Dr. Ruth, Ryan White crafts a piercingly observant investigative documentary that methodically pieces together a complex collage of incriminating evidence outlining a carefully orchestrated attempt to conceal the sinister implications behind Kim’s assassination. It’s a Kafka-esque and sometimes darkly comic tale of deception and exploitation that makes for a smartly assembled and eminently topical film that arrives at a crucial juncture in world affairs, as North Korea’s menacing posture poses difficult decisions for its neighbors and global superpowers alike.

Following the outlines of Doug Bock Clark’s 2017 GQ article "The Untold Story of Kim Jong-nam’s Assassination," White’s production team arrives onsite early in the defendants’ trial, interviewing their attorneys, reviewing airport CCTV footage and painstakingly reconstructing records of the women’s text messages and social media postings. The outcome of their investigation sharply contradicts the official law enforcement narrative, but in fact Malaysian prosecutors weren’t at all inclined to follow the clues provided by the suspects.

Even after both women similarly recount how they’d been hired to participate in prank videos and told to accost Kim Jong-nam in the latest episode of the ongoing hidden-camera high jinks, officials maintained their guilt. Understandably, Indonesian Siti Aisyah, a poor single mother with a sixth-grade education, and Vietnamese national Doan Thi Huong, a cocktail waitress with acting ambitions, weren’t well equipped to detect their handlers’ intentions, or to explain them to law enforcement. Hearing their halting, sometimes tearful attempts to recount the circumstances surrounding the assault suggests a level of incomprehension completely incompatible with a complex murder plot more characteristic of a violent, secretive military state.

North Korean "supreme leader" Kim Jong-un has developed a reputation as the bad boy of nuclear proliferation, a mercurial provocateur fond of threatening to attack the US or obliterate South Korea with the north’s growing cache of atomic warheads. A dozen years ago though, he had little prospect of rising to the top of North Korea’s socialist government, overlooked in favor of Kim Jong-nam. When his older brother fell out of favor with their dictatorial father Kim Jong-il and accepted part-time exile in Macau, Kim Jong-un took his place as the country’s anointed leader.

Even at arm’s length, Kim Jong-nam may still have posed a potential threat to his brother’s regime, which perhaps explains rumors that Kim Jong-un gave standing orders for his brother’s assassination, likely culminating in the Malaysia hit, which originated with a carefully coordinated clandestine operation planned months earlier.

Investigations by the defendants’ incredibly thorough and dedicated legal teams reveal that North Korean agents probably recruited Huong and Aisyah separately in Jakarta and Hanoi respectively. Their handlers told them that overseas production companies wanted to hire talent to make funny prank videos to be shared on YouTube and other platforms. This ongoing ruse, which involved a series of actual video shoots, eventually led to Kuala Lumpur and their assault on Kim Jong-nam, after their contacts told them each to rub an oily substance on his face for the hidden cameras.

Police promptly arrested Aisyah and Huong for Kim’s murder, a crime that carries the death penalty, even though the highly unusual use of VX ruled out suspects with limited resources, but by then more than a half-dozen North Koreans later identified as government agents had already fled Malaysia. From the prosecutorial side, it’s clear that the murder case rapidly escalated to the level of a high-stakes show trial, with the authorities eager to demonstrate the supposedly high standards of Malaysian justice, a premise that rapidly unravels during the trial and its astounding denouement.

As White lays out the details of a suspected political assassination, it’s difficult not to feel concern for the fate of the accused, as well as for the safety of the lawyers and investigators preparing a case that may expose the merciless policies of one of the world’s most secretive governments.

After more than adequately establishing that Huong and Aisyah were ruthlessly exploited and manipulated into unsuspectingly killing Kim Jong-nam, the film touches on longstanding rumors that he was in fact a CIA source. This version of events posits that Kim was eliminated soon after meeting with an agency contact in southern Malaysia before turning up in Kuala Lumpur with $139,000 in his possession. Even if Assassins is understandably unable to definitively establish North Korea’s responsibility for Kim Jong-nam’s murder, his violent death chillingly signals that any potential traitors may face a similar fate.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)
Production company: Tripod Media
Director: Ryan White
Producers: Jessica Hargrave, Ryan White
Executive producers: Doug Bock Clark, Dan Cogan, Geralyn White Dreyfous
Director of photography: John Benam
Editor: Helen Kearns
Music: Blake Neely

104 minutes