Ryan White’s new film provides a plainspoken account of such a nerve-shattering plot of a fascist’s purge.

FOUR YEARS AGO, Kim Jong-nam, the older half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was assassinated at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Two women carried out the brazen attack using the chemical compound nerve agent VX. Video footage from the airport cameras identified the assassins as Siti Aisyah, an Indonesian, and Doan Thi Huong, a Vietnamese. The suspects denied the accusations and claimed they were duped into thinking they were participating in a prank show.

Ryan White, the film’s director and producer, delivered a straightforward and riveting docufilm about the assassination. Devoid of color commentaries, it focuses attention on the accused — mere pawns in a power struggle inside a totalitarian hermit nation. Assassins could have digressed into multiple sub-topics, considering the international scope of the crime. Instead, it chronicles the recruitment process, the assassination, and the trial.

Siti and Doan are presented as women with dreams and ambitions susceptible to the allure of fame and financial promise. Drawing from the interviews with their families and legal teams, it became clear their stories are tragic tales of migrants searching for greener pastures. But the political implications magnified their misfortunes. Their lives could have been exploited at the hands of lesser filmmakers to add intrigue or exaggerated to manipulate emotions.

White understands the assassination itself is fascinating enough. This particular assassination, audacious and absurd, is also an elaborate fratricide — a crime that has intrigued people since biblical times. That it involves half-brothers and potential rulers of a totalitarian regime is enough to grab our attention. 

Intentional or not, placing the stories of the Siti and Doan at the center of the film offers a sharp take on the oppression of women and the persistence of a patriarchal and authoritarian rule. There are male suspects in the assassination. The mastermind, the recruiters, and the look-outs are all men. Most of them returned to North Korea before the authorities could round them up. No man stood before the court accused of the crime but Siti and Doan. The motive is to eliminate a brother and potential rival. The means is an intricate assassination attempt that a group of men planned and carried out in public. But the criminals charged and jailed? Women. 

The patriarchal rule endures because of its continued oppression of women. It needs women because women give birth to the next generation of oppressors and the oppressed. (Side note: using women as assassins completes the circle of life and death.) The docufilm mentioned the Mount Paektu or Baekdu bloodline, referring to the Kim lineage and its uninterrupted rule of North Korea since the rise of its patriarch Kim Il-sung. The leadership passed on to his late son Kim Jong-il and to the present ruler, his grandson, Kim Jong-un. The elder Kims developed cult-like worship among their people and created official titles to strengthen their power. Both father and son also acquired multiple wives to produce heirs to continue their bloodline. The current leader has promoted his sister Kim Yo-jong as one of his top officials. His sister caught the attention of the internet after he fell ill. The online joke is, if she assumes leadership, authoritarianism will have female representation.  

Looking at North Korean politics, the fictional cult-like narrative sustains their power and multiple heirs ensure their continuous rule. Tricked into an organized deception, Siti and Doan eliminated the number one rival of Kim Jong-un. Is it a coincidence that the mastermind picked women? No. It made sense. The assassination has been described as something straight out of an espionage movie. It sure is. Will it have the same impact had the assassins been men? I doubt.

(The phenomenon of cult-like figures is not limited to authoritarian regimes. See: Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. Sift through their records and a pattern of fictionalized narratives and devotion of one or a group of women enablers.)

The court dropped the charges against Siti and Doan, but the entire process has left them scarred for life. Kim Jong-un, on the other hand, emerged unscathed and legitimized. He has proven to the world that he is a chip of the old totalitarian block. The film rolled out a montage of video clips of world leaders welcoming Kim. None more impressive or ridiculous than a cordial handshake with Trump — sealing his enhanced standing at home and abroad. 

The rise of streaming has produced more true crime documentaries and made them accessible to a larger audience. Unlike most of these documentaries, there is a deliberate attempt to keep the docufilm as direct and plainspoken as possible. Engrossing and enraging, Assassins serves as a historical reminder of a crime powerful men have committed and hope the public forgets. 


2020 | Documentary | dir. Ryan White

True crime meets global spy thriller in this gripping account of the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of the North Korean leader. The film follows the trial of the two female assassins, probing the question: were the women trained killers or innocent pawns of North Korea?

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