Assassins – movie review

Who was responsible for the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother? And why? Were the two young women convicted of his murder duped into supposedly pranking him when, instead, they were applying a deadly nerve agent known as VX? These questions are answered in the comprehensive and compelling documentary, Assassins.

It gives considerable background and context to what happened in February 2017 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The doco follows the trial of the two women, revealing their records of interview. The Malaysian justice system is put under scrutiny and, suffice to say, it doesn’t fare well. In fact, totalitarianism in general comes out of this looking decidedly ordinary.

Assassins includes insights from two key journalists, Malaysian Hadi Azmi (who followed the case closely) and the Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post, Anna Fifield, who freely admits to being obsessed with North Korea. It also features interviews with the women’s family and friends, and their lawyers. Importantly, the documentary points the finger at their “handlers” … and the handlers’ overseers.

The “handlers” paid them to participate in supposedly funny pranks (several of which we witness), in the lead up to that fateful day, which was sold to them as yet another joke. Their mistake appears to have been misplaced trust and no more. Siti Aisyah was from a poor village family, who finished school at sixth grade and moved to Jakarta to work in a clothing factory, where she kept very long hours. She married the owner, had a son at age 17, divorced (the son went to live with her ex-husband’s father) and headed to Kuala Lumpur, looking for a better job. Like many female migrants she fell into sex work.

Doan Thi Huong studied accountancy at a private university in Hanoi, but couldn’t get a job in the field. She ended up as a waitress at a bar, did some modelling and aspired to be a successful actress.

A stunning revelation about Kim Jong-Nam – the first-born son of Kim Jong-II – adds credence to why Kim Jong-Un had tried for some time to get rid of him. That is in spite his half-brother reaching out to him to assure him he posed no threat. There was a decade age difference between the pair and, of course, they had different mothers.

Assassins is a considered and detailed piece, directed by Ryan White (Ask Dr Ruth) that unpacks the murky truth. The women seem to be mere pawns in a much more sinister and decidedly unseemly game, with power and politics at its core. We are presented with a contemporary whodunnit, full of intrigue, mystery and subterfuge. It’s gripping and its content galling.

Assassins brings down the curtain on one of the most sordid affairs in recent history.

Assassins is in limited cinema release now, and will be streaming on DocPlay from 18 March 2021

Alex First

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