- Emma Simmonds
- 25 January 2021
The bizarre assassination of Kim Jong-nam is the focus of an informative and compassionate film
A crime that created a global splash due to its incendiary and unusual nature is unpacked in this gripping documentary from Ryan White, the Emmy-nominated director and producer of The Case Against 8 and The Keepers. Assassins humanises the apparently unwitting young female perpetrators, alongside their victim. It puts the 2017 murder of Kim Jong-nam, the older half-brother of North Korea's Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, at its centre, shining a spotlight on a secretive regime and a clan riddled with rivalries, and carefully laying out the preparations which preceded the deed in question.
Omitting himself from the picture, White speaks to international reporters who closely followed events (The Washington Post's Anna Fifield and BenarNews's Hadi Azmi), the dogged legal teams of the accused women Siti Aisyah and Đoàn Thị Hương, and to those with an emotional stake in the outcome of the trial. Kim Jong-nam was killed on 13 Feb 2017 in Kuala Lumpur International Airport, in broad daylight and plain sight of others. He was smeared with VX nerve agent, with his supposed assassins, who did not know each other, believing they were carrying out a video prank – as they had done many times before. While the North Korean suspects in the case quickly fled the country, the women stayed put, seemingly unaware that anything out of the ordinary had occurred.
It's the strangest of stories but, thankfully, Assassins doesn't attempt any quirky or humorous touches. Not only did a man die but such crimes in Malaysia carry the death penalty for the perpetrators, so the women quickly found themselves in very hot water. By interviewing their gobsmacked and frightened family and friends, the film paints a picture of two marginalised and exploited young immigrants; Aisyah – originally from Indonesia – was working in the sex trade at the time.
Assassins fills in potential motivations for the crime, painting Kim Jong-un as a dangerous man to be related to, and an increasingly shrewd political player. His murdered sibling is less understood, in the absence of sources close to him speaking out, the film has to rely on a few unguarded and critical statements he made about the North Korean regime in recent years, his thwarted attempt to visit Tokyo Disneyland, which seems to have put paid to his claim to the leadership, and an apparent meeting with a CIA agent in the days before his death. Retaining a sense of compassion through to its final frames, this is an extremely interesting account of events for those who might remember the initial incident but don't know the precise details of how it played out.
Available to watch on demand from Fri 29 Jan.