Assassins Tells The True Story of Kim Jong-nam's Killing
"Straight out of a spy movie" is how one news network describes the killing of Kim Jong-nam at the start of Assassins, but the new documentary from Ryan White, which premiered at Sundance last year, aims to untangle the Hollywood drama from this sad story of two exploited women carrying out a savage murder.
In February of 2017, just after Donald Trump had taken office in America, news broke that Kim Jong-un's brother had been assassinated by a pair of women who smeared his face with VX nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia. The James Bond-esque tale of two femme fatales quickly caught the headlines, helped by a CCTV still of one wearing a white jumper emblazoned with the word “LOL”. It felt, at the time, like an apt representation of how surreal geopolitics had become.
Assassins, now coming to video-on-demand, tells a different story, of two young women from poor south east Asian villages, who were manipulated into carrying out a murder for money and internet fame. Doan Thi Huong and Siti Aisyah, both believing they were part of one of the prank shows which are popular in Japan, performed multiple practice runs in the lead-up to the killing, under the direction of North Korean operatives, who had recruited them to be assassins.
Like many people, White read about the news story with incredulity, assuming the women were trained killers acting on behalf of Kim Jong-un, who had become increasingly paranoid about people questioning his claim to power since inheriting the leadership from his father, in 2011. When a journalist who was writing a story got in touch to say that all was not as it seemed – that the women had admitted to killing Kim Jong-nam, but said they thought it was a prank – White realised that defence alone was a good enough reason to get on a plane to Malaysia.
"The arc of the film reveals the case that these women might be innocent," White says. "But that wasn’t an immediate revelation to us. Sometimes, I would see things where I would think they were innocent, then you would find other things that didn’t totally add up."
White, who is best known for his 2017 Netflix documentary series The Keepers, "isn't attracted to true crime", but instead is interested in how stories rooted in mystery reveal something bigger about humanity. "The Keepers used the murder of a nun in 1969 to delve deeper into the issue of child sex abuse and systemic corruption," he says. "Assassins is similar in that it uses this sensationalist hook of two femme fatales, but that’s not really what the story is about. It’s about pulling back the curtain behind that headline and revealing who these two women are. It's about what lead them to the moment where they touched Kim Jong-nam’s face."
The story walks a thin line between the farcical and the tragic, showing how Siti and Doan, both trapped in poverty, were enthralled by the possibility of internet fame. They ended up drawn into something much darker, a path documented, like a trail of breadcrumbs, on social media. In one scene, which captures the mixture of sadness and the surreal that is threaded through the story, we see Doan getting into an elevator with a teddybear that her handlers had given her, to practice the prank on. "It was so absurd that a woman is carrying a life-size teddybear into her hotel room the night before she assassinates someone," White says. "But this woman is about to forever change her life. There’s one definite victim who is Kim Jong-nam, and if you believe the women are innocent there’s three victims, so we didn’t want to treat it lightly."
During the years it took to watch the trial play out, White was making another documentary about Dr Ruth Westheimer, a 92-year old who escaped Nazi Germany as a child and went on to become the world's most famous sex therapist. "She hated that I was making Assassins because she was like my grandmother at that point," White says. "So she was very concerned about my safety."
The team consulted with the FBI to ensure their footage and personal data remained secure, but there were still numerous strange incidents involving mirrored social media accounts, and fake emails trying to infiltrate their operation. The stakes – already high, as the two women faced the death penalty if found guilty – became higher still as America's relationship with North Korea took centre-stage, when Donald Trump met with Kim Jong-un in North Korea in June 2019. We see that summit, in all its surreality, play out in the film.
Assassins premiered last January, when although Trump had not committed to a peaceful transfer of power, he hadn't yet refused to concede the presidential election, threatened the elected officials who certified it, or directed a mob to attack the Capitol building. Perhaps the film's most pertinent message is its determination to uncover the truth – much of which was never presented in court during the trial – even if many of those accountable, both directly and indirectly, escaped justice.
"It’s almost like inverted true crime," White says. "True crime is popular because of the classic whodunnit. That’s the hook: who is the killer? But here the women were admitting they had done it. So it wasn't who had done this, but why?"
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by Esquiremag.ph editors.