Assassins peers into the diplomatic murk and weirdness of a high-profile murder

Ryan White’s assured documentary tells the tallest of tales – how two innocent women unwittingly assassinated Kim Jong-un’s half-brother.

5 February 2021

By Hannah McGill

Assassins (2020)
Sight and Sound

Finding oneself scapegoated for a terrible crime, whether through malice, error or mere convenience, is a fear potent enough to have recurred as a plot line on page and screen. Such stories test whatever investment we have in the value of truth, in the integrity of institutions, and in our own ability to effectively represent our own interests.

The experience of Siti Aisyah and Đoàn Thị Hương takes these fears to an extreme at once frightening in its cruelty and startling in its preposterousness. These two women, Indonesian and Vietnamese respectively, were in their twenties, both of modest means but with vague dreams of show business, when they were approached by Korean men claiming to be making a hidden camera prank show for the Japanese market. Dummy runs preceded what they didn’t know was the big job: clapping hands slicked with what they thought was baby oil over the eyes of a stranger at Kuala Lumpur Airport. (One of the women pointed out that the prank wasn’t funny; she was reassured that Japanese humour was specific.)

In fact, the target was Kim Jong-Nam, half-brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un; the fluid on the women’s hands was the nerve agent VX; and he was dead within minutes. The women maintained that they had no idea of the true nature of what they were involved in; even after her arrest, says lawyer Selvi Sandrasegaram, “we had to persuade her that someone had really died.” Their Korean contacts, meanwhile, vanished. The complex diplomatic relationships between North Korea and Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia all proceeded to weigh heavily on the women’s chances of a fair or rigorous process.

Ryan White’s assured documentary relates the twists of the case in breathy, newsy style. If it never penetrates the mystery of North Korea’s involvement in the attack, nor indeed gets to anyone who doesn’t want their side of the story told, it very effectively emphasises the extent to which diplomatic manoeuvres rather than justice or morality decided the fates of the two women involved. Their survival and ongoing recovery, meanwhile, is depicted with great tenderness.

And as for Kim Jong-Un? According to the Australian journalist Anna Fifield, the audacious dispatch of his half-brother was a statement of defiance, for which he “got off relatively scot-free”, but also advertised himself as “surprisingly adept at being a totalitarian leader”. 

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