Unless you doggedly follow geopolitics, you may only be passingly familiar with the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, in Malaysia in 2017. Two women were accused of his murder, but the question became if they were highly trained operatives working on behalf of the North Korean government to eliminate a potential rival, or were they somehow duped into poisoning Kim Jong-nam? With the pacing and style of a political thriller, Assassins director Ryan White dives into the case while providing a crash course on East and Southeast Asian politics. The results are exhilarating, fascinating, and ultimately tragic.
In February 2017, Kim Jong-nam, who was living in self-imposed exile in Macao, flew into the airport in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia. Before he could even leave the terminal, two women came up to him and smeared the deadly toxin VX on his face. Within an hour, Kim was dead. The perpetrators, Indonesian migrant Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese aspiring actress Doan Thi Hoang, were arrested for the crime. The women claim they had no idea who Kim Jong-nam was and thought they were just participating in a hidden camera prank show. If convicted they would receive the mandatory death penalty. As we pull back and see the larger forces at play, we see that two innocent women became pawns in a much larger game by Kim Jong-un to cement his political legitimacy.
Assassins had me hooked from the start even though I was only vaguely familiar with the case. I imagine like most Americans, we may have heard about the incident in a news alert and then moved on with our day. White understands that his audience will need a wealth of information on the various players and geopolitical machinations, and he provides this background like you’re sitting in on the debrief for a spy thriller. He talks to experts about the region, people who have been following the case from day one, and paints a captivating picture of Kim Jong-un’s motives for killing his half-brother.
The picture Assassins paints of the North Korean espionage plans is both impressive and terrifying. White is able to walk us through how this hit was carried out step-by-step and the various players involved. White also does a superb job of explaining every question you might have. Why did the VX kill Jong-nam but not the women? Why were the women the only people accused and not their North Korean handlers? Why did North Korea allow the women to stand trial instead of knocking them off after the hit? Every time you think you can get ahead of Assassins, White shows the depth and breadth of his research and knowledge.
And yet what makes the film work is that it has Siti and Doan at its heart. White takes the time to show where each woman came from and how they landed in these extraordinary circumstances. The tale he reveals is that these women were chosen not because they were elite operators able to move in and out of any space, but because they were disposable. North Korea didn’t want to use its own people to carry out the hit, and they knew they could avoid some of the blowback by pinning the blame on a migrant from Indonesia and an aspiring actress from Vietnam. We’ve seen fictional spy thrillers where a hapless everyman or everywoman gets drawn into a vast conspiracy, but in the fictional story, the hapless person cracks the case and exposes the corruption. As you can probably guess, that does not happen in the real world.
I admire that White is able to hold sympathy for these women without trying to position the movie as some kind of paranoid “It could happen to you!” parable. What makes Assassins so chilling isn’t that the government could conscript you into an assassination without your knowledge, but that it plays into the sad truth that our world treats poor women as disposable. Assassins is able to look at the macro and micro-effects of the assasinatuon, and both conclusions are damning.
Assassins does not currently have a release date.
For more of our Sundance 2020 reviews, click the links below:
- The Assistant
- Bad Hair
- Boys State
- Crip Camp
- The Glorias
- Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story
- The Last Thing He Wanted
- Miss Americana
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always
- The Night House
- Palm Springs
- Promising Young Woman
- Run Sweetheart Run