American filmmaker Ryan White, director of the acclaimed Netflix mini-series The Keepers, spins a web of riveting, murderous intrigue in his latest documentary Assassins. At its centre lies the killing of Kim Jong-nam at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on 13th February 2017.
Half-brother to the current leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, son to the former incumbent, Kim Jong-un, he had lived many years of relative obscurity with his family in Macau. Passing through KLIA on that fateful day to return home, he was accosted by two young women – Sita Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong. Approaching him from behind, they each placed their hands over his eyes and face, and then immediately fled the scene.
Within an hour, Jong-nam – travelling under an assumed name – was dead as a result of VX poisoning. The bare bones of this plot are as extraordinary as they are confounding. What possible motive could the unrelated Indonesian (Aisyah) and Vietnamese (Huong) women have had for murdering this man? Did they even know what the intended consequences of their actions were? Were there other forces involved? Jaw-dropping is an overused compound adjective in the world of film critiquing, but assembling – through a patient, steady reveal – pieces of the puzzle that aim to make this bizarre image whole, there are moments here where you will audibly gasp.
Much of the success of Assassins does come from the material at hand but White’s film is nonetheless impeccably constructed. Unspooling largely in time with events as they occurred, he keeps a tight hold on threads stretching from Kuala Lumpur, to Jakarta, to Doan and Sita’s hometown villages, and to Pyongyang. The testimonies of loving family, respective legal defence teams, and journalists Hadi Azmi and Anna Fifield are centrifugal forces that feed into and swing around the trial itself, which takes place in Malaysia. Should they be found guilty, the death penalty would be the mandatory sentence.
Given the far-reaching, potentially devastating stakes at hand, the candour and openness with which all talking heads recount their points of view is perhaps surprising. Fifield, formerly Beijing bureau chief of the Washington Post, provides a great deal of context on the largely unknown inner workings of North Korea and the lengths to which Kim Jong-un would go to establish himself – on both a domestic and international level – as the nation’s supreme leader in the wake of his father’s death. Suggestions of brotherly paranoia and a fratricidal plot hang tantalisingly in the air throughout.
It’s a pity that – no doubt not for lack of trying – White and his team do not obtain any first-hand testimony from the prosecution or from behind Pyongyang’s impenetrable walls. There is not far to leap, step even, in connecting dots between much higher powers and ulterior motives, diplomatic and political agents vying for position. Caught in the maelstrom of events well beyond their control or understanding are two unwitting, desperate young women merely seeking to make a few hundred dollars to send home to their families. Making what they thought was a You’ve Been Framed or Jackass-style prank video, Sita and Doan are two helpless pawns, linchpins in spy games of dramatic proportions.
Assassins is available to stream on Dogwoof On Demand from Friday. watch.dogwoof.com
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63