One of the more bizarre international scandals of recent years is the February 2017 assassination of Kim Jong-Nam, the exiled former heir to late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il. In broad daylight, at one of the most public locations in Southeast Asia––Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport––Kim was ambushed by two attractive young women who smeared a lethal chemical agent on his face. Within hours, he was dead. When the killers were identified, arrested, and charged mere days later, each pleaded her innocence with the same seemingly outlandish story: that they had been led to believe they were actresses in a Japanese prank show, without any awareness of their murderous actions.
Like a classic political neo-noir, Ryan White’s new documentary Assassins begins with this headline-grabbing spectacle and proceeds both forward and backwards in time to reveal the strange conspiracy that precipitated it and the human players involved. The unlikely international assassins––Doan Thi Huong of Vietnam and Siti Aisyah of Indonesia––turn out to be compelling genre protagonists, as the film patiently and sympathetically unspools the circumstances by which two young women who wanted more out of life than domestic passivity became unwitting patsies in a lethal clandestine plot.
Crisply shot, ominously scored, and propulsively edited like a cut-rate thriller, Assassins provides enough wider political context (courtesy of policy experts and journalists given just enough characterization to avoid being pure talking heads) to understand the causes and implications of its events, but largely avoids big-picture pontificating to maintain tight emotional and factual focus on its central characters and drama. The two women’s ordeal––their seduction by undercover spooks posing as entertainment producers, and their politically fraught trial in Malaysian court––are the narrative thrust never far from the center of the film. It’s a dramatic and complex story, told by journalists, lawyers, policy experts, friends, and family, that largely unfolded away from Western eyes. White capitalizes expositional clarity for the uninitiated Western viewer, but finds the time to let a distinct humanistic edge creep through in his sympathetic framing of subjects and eye for economic tidbits of characterization, whether offhanded remarks or details of office decor. (Dimly-lit shots of a sparse, cramped, and just-messy-enough apartment are just the right amount of visual exposition to suggest its charmingly geeky journalist inhabitant’s place among the Alan Pakula protagonists of yesteryear.)
Though not a film as big or bombastic as North Korea’s political gestures, nor one to ruminate on larger questions about the political state of East Asia’s former Third World and the Western observer’s role to bear, White’s picture pokes its head above the masses of drably shot, dryly informational documentaries currently dominating streaming services with both its clear and concise journalism and its deft command of narrative and genre. Save for a slightly obvious bit of hawkish Trump-bashing at the end (did you hear the guy is buddy-buddy with dictators?), it largely allows the facts of the case to breathe without overbearing editorializing––as these facts need little boosting to be perversely compelling unto themselves. Its 109 minutes feel as brisk as half the time, playing as they do to the storytelling strengths of cloak-and-dagger cinema. A tasty morsel of intrigue.
Assassins opens in Virtual Cinemas on Friday, December 11.