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In 2017, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam was assassinated at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport. How could such a brazen attack happen in broad daylight in a busy terminal? That is the question, indeed, and the subject of Assassins, Ryan White’s engaging thrill-ride of a documentary that tells a story too crazy to possibly be true. And yet it is.
Two women – one Indonesian and one Vietnamese – were charged with the murder, caught on camera in the act, applying VX nerve agent, one after the other, directly to Kim’s face and eyes. Easy to identify from the security footage, they were quickly apprehended. Strangely, both claimed they had no idea what they were doing, duped by sinister agents masquerading as video producers. They each believed, according to their testimony, that they were acting in candid-camera movies. How is that possible?
White (Ask Dr. Ruth) carefully leads us through the complicated plot, first establishing the mystery of it and then explaining the history of the Kim family and why Jong-un would want Jong-nam dead. From there, he breaks down the recruitment of the two unwitting killers, Siti Aisyah (from Indonesia) and Duan Thu Huong (from Vietnam), starting with their arrival in Malaysia and careful grooming as video pranksters. Despite the nastiness of what they were made to do, one has to almost admire the elaborate preparation of the hit, given how long this was in the works.
Interviewing experts on the case, like local journalist Hadi Azmi or the Washington Post’s Anna Fifield, as well as lawyers for both of the accused, plus family members of the same, White dives into regional, gender and class-based politics, examining the seedy underbelly of life in a city as wealthy as Kuala Lumpur and how easy it was for the North Koreans to convince the blissfully ignorant conscripts of the harmlessness of their actions. We are there for the trial – the penalty for the assassination is death – and its aftermath. No scripted drama could possibly do better with its own twists and turns.
By the end, we have been transported into a tale of conspiracy and espionage, with a fair measure of social justice thrown in, too. The outcome of the trial proves surprising, if ultimately satisfying, even if the ultimate perpetrators of the crime go free. Realpolitik triumphs, as it so often does. But you’ll never look at reality TV the same way again …
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)