Ryan White knows a good story when he sees one and, whether he is investigating the unsolved murder of a young nun in Baltimore or exploring the life of Dr Ruth Westheimer, America’s most famous sex therapist, he certainly knows how to construct a gripping tale.
Assassins is no different. The documentary tells the story of two young women - Siti Aisyah from Indonesia and Doan Thi Huong from Vietnam. In 2017, they assassinated Kim Jong-nam - the half-brother of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un - in the departures hall of Malaysia’s international airport.
In full view of the airport’s security cameras, Siti and Doan can be seen approaching Jong-nam from behind. Doan covers his eyes with her hands before both women run off. An hour later, Jong-nam was dead - killed following exposure to VX, the most lethal nerve gas on earth.
The murder - and its blatant nature - stunned the world. However, this was only the beginning of a bizarre and increasingly disturbing story. After their arrest, both Siti and Doan claimed that they had been hired to pull a video prank. They were mere pawns, they said, and had no idea what they were actually doing.
Their pleas fell on deaf ears. The Malaysian authorities imprisoned both women and put them on trial for the murder of Jong-nam. A guilty verdict would mean the death penalty - by hanging.
Assassins certainly has an unbelievable tale to tell. However, while many of us will likely remember how this story began, many do not know how it ends. If you, like me, fall into this category, don’t be tempted by Google. White has you covered and the less you know, the better.
Featuring remarkable access, Assassins examines the lives of Siti and Doan - their homes, their families and their dreams. The night before the assassination, Siti celebrated her birthday at the Hard Rock Cafe. “She seemed really happy,” a friend recalls. “We couldn’t believe that she murdered someone the next morning”.
The documentary explores the details of this incredibly audacious murder and reveals the political machinations that lie at its dark heart. Assassins takes us down a rabbit hole full of shocking twists and turns. However, thanks to White’s assured direction, we never feel lost.
Vital context is also provided by two journalists who covered this story from its shocking start. Hadi Azmi from the Benar News and The Washington Post’s Anna Fifield explain why Jong-nam was a threat to Kim Jong-un and why we should look at the role played by eight men from North Korea.
All is not as it seems… and then some.
Assassins is gripping from beginning to end. If this was fiction, the film would undoubtedly be derided for being outlandish. How can events have unfolded this way - in full view of the world’s media? White leaves us wondering how and, perhaps more importantly, why the murder of Kim Jong-nam and the fate of Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong faded so quickly from the headlines.