Documentary Review: “Assassins” do North Korea’s dirty work

The attack was brazen, and because it was captured on video and involved North Korea, it dominated the news for months back in 2017.

The exiled brother of Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s latest dictator for life from the Kim Dynasty, was approached by two pretty young women in Kuala Lumpur airport who suddenly smeared something in his face and skipped off. One even looked up at a CCTV camera and smiled on her way to a restroom to wash her hands.

The victim? He talked to police, was taken to the airport clinic, and was dead within an hour.

Who were these two murderously amoral black widows? And who put them up to it?

The answers seemed simple back then, as they do in the first act or Ryan White’s gripping investigative documentary, “Assassins.” Yes, this Indonesian woman in the LOL t-shirt and her Vietnamese colleague did it. But did they know what they were doing?

White talks to their families, and the lawyers for Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong. At first, they fret over daughters were “seduced” by the world outside a Vietnamese farm or Indonesian town. “Confess, if you did it,” Doan’s brother writes her.

The lawyers seem, at first, resigned to their clients’ murderous intent or at least complicity.

White interviews journalists, both inside press-restricted Malaysia and outsiders, to reveal an ever-widening web of conspiracy, complicity and the diplomatic entanglements that the case uncovered and trumped “justice” in the case at almost every turn.

But Malaysian police, snappish and defensive in press conferences, are exposed as “shallow” and not eager to stand up higher-ups who see relations with North Korea, Indonesia and (to a lesser degree) Vietnam as more important than a mere political murder in a public place, with video cameras that ensured the world could see their shame.

That footage, by the way? Leaked to the international media, but kept from the defense attorneys.

The film also gets into the Kim family history, the younger brother/dictator’s need to “keep them (others in government, in the country and in his family) terrified.” For a laugh or two, watch the “outraged” North Korean ambassador declare (in English), “The Malaysian police are desperate to shift the blame to us!” after we’ve seen the cluster of North Korean agents in video at the airport laying the groundwork the day of the murder.

The North Korean “mastermind” and “the godfather” and “the chemist” are identified by Malaysian journalist Hadi Azmi as, in scene after scene, he walks us through the crime’s set-up and the moment by moment events that the CCTV footage document.

We’re allowed to take the lawyers lightly — at first. With clients facing the death penalty, they chuckle inappropriately over the irregularities of the done-deal court and can seem disorganized. But they doggedly pursued the women’s back-stories, that this was a “prank” for a Japanese TV show, that they’d been groomed by doing these very sorts of stunts on strangers for a year by virtually every Korean agent the police ID’d and in some cases arrested and then let go.

White, who did “Ask Dr. Ruth” and a “Serena” documentary, is very good at getting the blood boiling over the injustices at every turn, the feigned outrage of North Koreans trying to bully their way out of blame and Malaysians who let the world know that they know who was involved and how, and just what they were willing to do about it.

The larger theme of “Assassination” is one of the unjust “justice” of press-restricting/oppressive states. When state actors are allowed to get away with murder, who else makes it to the regime’s “immune to prosecution” list? What chance does “the rule of law,” under strain even in democracies, have under such conditions?

It isn’t the Washington Post or New York Times that sticks its neck out in cases like this. It’s the reporter who knows the state’s blind spots and what they’re capable of willing to tell her or his people what’s going on who becomes the hero of a sordid story like “Assassins.”

MPA Rating: unrated

Cast:  Siti Aisyah, Hadi Azmi, Anna Fifield, Doan Thi Huong

Credits: Directed by Ryan White. A Greenwich Entertainment release.

Running time: 1:44

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