The documentary Assassins, opening in theaters today, is part legal thriller, part spy thriller, and part true crime story, “on literally the largest geopolitical scale,” as director Ryan White puts it.
The tale almost beggars belief. In 2017, Kim Jong-nam—half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un—walked into the departures area of the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, preparing to take a flight. Without warning, two young women came up behind him and covered his eyes with their hands, smearing a substance on him. Kim staggered away and within an hour he was dead.
“What we know now is that what was on the women’s hands was VX, which is a nerve agent, the most lethal chemical weapon in the world,” White tells Deadline. “And that’s what they had rubbed on his eyes.”
'Assassins' Trailer: Kim Jong-Nam's Murder Investigation Scrutinized In Ryan White's Latest Documentary
One of the killers, a Vietnamese woman named Doan Thi Huong, sported a cheeky outfit for the deadly encounter.
“She was wearing a ‘LOL’ sweatshirt,” notes White. “So she looked like this very brazen femme fatale that was sort of laughing in the face of this political assassination.”
As Assassins shows, the story only got stranger from there. After the assailants were arrested they claimed they thought they were carrying out a harmless prank for a social media reality show, and had unwittingly committed murder. White and producer Jessica Hargrave began filming at the start of the women’s trial, a capital case that could have ended with them swinging from the gallows.
“Going into it we’re both skeptics, we thought it seemed that it wasn’t plausible,” Hargrave recalls. “How can two women be convinced to assassinate someone thinking that they were on a reality show? And it seems so bizarre and unbelievable, but the more you look into it, the more you realize that it’s not, that it’s something that could totally happen, not just there, it could happen here.”
The filmmakers gained access to the defendants’ legal teams, who painted a picture of two vulnerable women, both from poor backgrounds, so eager to earn some money they were duped into taking part in a sinister scheme.
Doan and co-defendant Siti Aisyah told their lawyers “they had been recruited by Japanese YouTube producers to be on a reality show. And that, in fact, they had been on a reality show for months flying all over Southeast Asia, playing pranks on video and that their final prank [was to take place] in the Kuala Lumpur airport,” White explains. “The Japanese YouTube producers ended up being North Korean spies.”
As for the intended victim, the filmmakers note there were many reasons why Kim Jong-un would want his half-sibling eliminated.
“Many people considered Kim Jong-nam the heir to the throne and for various reasons that we explore in the film he was passed up for that in favor of his younger brother,” observes White. “He was always a constant threat to his brother…namely that he was questioning hereditary succession publicly…He was also making comments that he hoped the North Korean people would one day have a better life.”
Kim Jong-nam also possessed powerful friends.
“He had very close ties with China because he was living in Macau, which is a Chinese territory and China exerts a lot of power over North Korea,” White comments. “But he also had connections to the CIA…So he was connected to the two most powerful governments that could threaten Kim Jong-un’s leadership.”
What may be harder to explain is why North Korea would allegedly concoct such an outlandish assassination plot, instead of going for something more straightforward, like contracting a sniper.
“It is the million dollar question, is the why, why do it in this fashion? …We know things like that Kim Jong-un grew up on Jean-Claude Van Damme movies and liked action films,” says White. “The only real theory that makes sense to me on why it needed to be so over the top is the fear factor that comes with that, that Kim Jong-un wanted to send a message to the world, that he could have someone assassinated on international soil at any moment, all on camera, with assailants that were claiming they didn’t even know that they were assassins and the chilling factor, the shiver down the spine that would result around the world to any of his potential enemies.”
Adds Ryan, “The fact of the matter is that it worked, he got away with it. He pulled off this incredible spectacle and has faced no accountability for it.”
Along with a theatrical release, Assassins becomes available on PVOD January 15. The film is also qualifying for Oscar consideration.
White and Hargrave were keenly aware of the security challenges in making a film that touches on North Korea, given the notorious Sony Pictures Entertainment hack of 2014, allegedly orchestrated by North Korean cyber-agents.
“We had meetings with security consultants, including the FBI,” Hargrave explains. “We were lucky to meet with some agents who had actually worked on the Sony hack and were helping us understand the motivation behind it, or potential motivation behind it, and the control goals of these hackers so that we could figure out ways, as best we could, to prevent such a thing from happening…We were all very conscious of the risk and the need to keep everything as safe as possible.”
And what became of Siti and Doan, the angelic assassins? You’ll have to watch the film, which takes plenty of twists and turns.
“This was a crazy trial…The likelihood that they would ever survive this started to look bleaker and bleaker, the longer we documented it,” White tells Deadline. “The hard part about that was the longer we made it, the more we started considering the notion that they might be innocent…I can say without exaggerating that what happened in the trial at the end was the most shocking moment of my filmmaking career because it was a total curveball.”
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