On February 13, 2017, Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un, strolled through Kuala Lumpur International Airport only to be attacked from behind by two young women whose hands were slathered with the lethal nerve agent VX. The ambush was captured by CCTV footage, which also recorded the girls casually walking to the bathroom with their hands in the air and Kim Jong-nam almost immediately succumbing to the chemical compound. This assassination was so brazenly theatrical that it wouldn’t have been out of place in a tongue in cheek spy movie. The outfit of one of the women – a white top with “LOL” printed across the front – only added to the surreal nature of the crime. To its credit, Ryan White’s documentary Assassins doesn’t play up the bizarre aspects of the murder. Instead, it takes a sober approach to investigating the death of arguably the world’s most famous exile.
Opening with news reports of the arrest of Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, the documentary establishes how two apolitical girls could, briefly, be taken for expert assassins. Indeed, their defence that they had been tricked to believing they were participating in a prank comedy series for Japanese media and merely smearing their target with lotion seemed ridiculously far-fetched. The main strength of Assassins is how it meticulously reconstructs how they were manipulated by using CCTV footage, online videos, social media, and disoriented testimonies. Once the whole plot has been methodically laid out, it’s hard to disagree with Washington Post Beijing bureau chief Anna Fifield when she surmises, “In many ways, this is the perfect crime.”
White interweaves various threads. He judiciously chronicles Kim Jong-un’s premature ascent to power including how his half-brother had been exiled in circumstances almost as strange as his demise (causing embarrassment by being arrested while trying to visit Tokyo Disneyland with a forged Dominican Republic passport) and subsequently criticizing the dictatorship while possibly also being a CIA informant. There are the political ramifications of the case, with Bloomberg reporter Hadi Azmi pointing out how Malaysia’s diplomatic relations with North Korea led to conspirators (including a suspicious chemist) being able to flee the country, leaving the girls facing the death penalty. However, it’s the stories of Siti and Doan which constitute the documentary’s gut-wrenching core as they were pawns in a plot that, for all its admittedly audacious elements, pivoted on the reprehensible idea that women are exploitable.
Both were easily lured by the promise of quick money and even fame that could come from appearing in prank videos to be shared on YouTube. Siti’s story is particularly tragic – a villager whose divorce led to separation from her child, she had dabbled in sex work after relocating to Kuala Lumpur. Through halting interviews with the girls recorded in prison and access to their dedicated legal teams, White provides the pain behind the cheerful personas seen not just in their social media feeds but that near-damning CCTV footage.
Any preconceptions about their naivety are jettisoned when White utilizes their social media accounts to show how the assassination occurred after a series of video shoots which were actually rehearsals, complete with feedback from the ‘production company’. Through photos and brief videos, we get glimpses of the mysterious “Mr. Y”, Doan’s handler. Although his text messages occasionally indicated he was not a media professional – “I got scolded today because of you” and “Everyone has their own role to play” are telling examples – these giveaways were likely obscured through second language communication or Doan was too caught up in becoming a viral sensation to notice. The extended ruse/training program is all the more unsettling for how juvenile it appears – before the big ‘prank’, Doan is given a teddy bear to practice on.
Since the documentary is ominously scored by Blake Neely and precisely edited by Helen Kearns in the manner of a geopolitical thriller, the plight of the accused makes for riveting viewing even when one knows the outcome. White also delivers a barbed critique of the Malaysian justice system where someone must be held accountable, while calling attention to nefarious aspects of international diplomacy. Some may bemoan that certain avenues are not explored. Discussion of how a North Korean hit squad devised the prank video scheme when the state’s media sensibility is still seemingly of the stolid propaganda variety would be welcome. There is no attempt to track down “James”, the Japanese recruiter of Siti who she met through a taxi driver. And whether Kim Jong-nam was really on the CIA payroll is not conclusively proven. However, the focus on two young women duped by agents of a totalitarian government makes this an utterly chilling illustration of how North Korea’s regime considers lives to be eminently disposable in its quest to consolidate power, even when operating beyond its border.
John Berra is lecturer in Film and Language Studies at Renmin University of China. He is the editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan (Intellect, 2010/12/15), co-editor of World Film Locations: Beijing (Intellect, 2012) and World Film Locations: Shanghai (Intellect, 2014). He has also contributed to Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema (BFI, 2014), Ozu International: Essays on the Global Influences of a Japanese Auteur (Bloomsbury, 2014) and Killers, Clients and Kindred Spirits: The Taboo Cinema of Shohei Imamura (EUP, 2019).