SUNDANCE 2020 DOCUMENTARY FILM REVIEW! Where were you when you found out Kim Jong-nam was assassinated in a busy airport in Malaysia? The new documentary Assassins looks back at this bizarre moment in political history by focusing on the two hapless young girls duped into playing a deadly prank by the North Korean government. Documentarian Ryan White dives deep into the story of how Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese national Doan Thi Huong ended up murdering Nam and securing North Korean “supreme leader” Kim Jong-un’s top spot in his reclusive government. Though, while the subject matter and the political machinations are fascinating, the documentary suffers from taking a rather clinically detailed approach to the subject. The effect leaves us informed but not very engaged.
White begins by turning his lens on Siti and Doan, the two young women who committed the act. One an aspiring actress, the other a single mother, the two were solicited to be a part of a practical joke video for Youtube. After a few trial runs, their mysterious producers asked them to show up at the Malaysia airport on February 13th, 2017. Understanding that they were being recorded, the producers pointed out the mark, Kim Jong-nam.
The eldest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was reading an information board when the two young girls approached him and smeared deadly nerve agent VX in his face and eyes. Following the incident, Nam is seen approaching security and being escorted to their office while the effects of the nerve agent quickly take hold. Within one hour, Kim Jong-nam was dead. Security cameras caught the whole incident on camera with director Ryan White meticulously piecing CCTV footage to show the attack.
“…White proves the case that both Siti and Doan knew nothing of the assassination.”
Throughout Assassins, White proves the case that both Siti and Doan knew nothing of the assassination. Following the early stages of their trial, we hear their account of the events that lead to the fateful day via phone interviews. These moments are intercut with critical scenes of their litigation and the impending threat of death by hanging. The politically-charged story of a plot orchestrated by a secretive and vengeful North Korea is covered, and names are given. We even learn why Kim Jong-il would want the man dead in the first place. No joke, one of the reasons was that Nam tried to take his family to Tokyo Disneyland. Still, even with all these fascinating factoids, something seems just slightly antiseptic.
For all the intensity and conspiracies bandied about, the film remains quite dry. I’d hate to say that a documentary about an assassination plot wasn’t fun enough. I know it sounds terrible, but it is the truth. While informative, I never leaned forward and engaged with the events documented. Ryan White is a superb documentarian who has constructed a thorough account of the events while tracing the devastating effect they had on two innocent kids looking for a bit of internet stardom. While it is quite thoroughly researched and informational, nonetheless, I wasn’t all that compelled by Assassins.
Assassins screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
"…Where were you when you found out Kim Jong-nam was assassinated in a busy airport in Malaysia?"