The assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half-brother Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur’s airport in February of 2017, I’m embarrassed to say, was a blip on my radar. There was a vague recollection of two young women who were caught on CCTV smearing the deadly VX nerve agent on his face and running away. Kim Jong Nam died within the hour.
It seemed right out of a spy movie and apparently one I wrongly assumed I already knew the end to. And although the event and aftermath were widely, exhaustively covered, I don’t think I’m the only one who lost the thread early.
This not knowing is part of what makes Ryan White’s extraordinary documentary “ Assassins,” about the trial of the two young women, so compulsively compelling. I imagine even those who kept up with this strange saga will find their own jaws on the floor more than a few times as well.
The film plays out chronologically, first letting us discover the women through the CCTV footage appearing to ambush Kim Jong Nam, rub something on his face and then run away to the bathroom to presumably wash their hands of the poison. One is wearing a long sleeve shirt with the letters LOL. A local journalist marvels at how suspect it looks as both hold their hands away from themselves on their way to a sink.
The actions of 29-year-old Doan Thi Huong of Vietnam and 25-year-old Siti Aisyah of Indonesia killed Kim Jong Nam. But the central question of the film, and the trial, is whether these women were in fact trained killers, unwitting pawns, or somewhere in between. The stakes could not be higher: If found guilty in Malaysia they would be killed.
The seed of doubt about the women starts to evaporate early when you begin to learn about their lives and understand why they say they thought they were merely participating in a hidden camera prank show. It is a revealing and heart-wrenching portrait of what life is like for young women in Vietnam and Indonesia where exploitation is rampant and options are few. Huong wanted to be an actress. Aisyah wanted to send money home to her impoverished family. When they’re approached, separately, about participating in a YouTube prank show for a regular paycheck, you understand why they don’t seem to ask many questions of their mysterious bosses.
White, who was also behind the Netflix series “The Keepers,” about the unsolved murder of a nun, and “Ask Dr. Ruth,” gets extraordinary access to the defense lawyers in the case who help walk us through the appeals process and the trial. A Washington Post journalist is also on hand to help explain the dynamics of the North Korean dynasty. And much time is devoted to poring over the CCTV footage from all angles. You might find yourself instinctively saying “enhance, enhance" to no one in particular.
Through no fault of the filmmakers, the North Korean element remains, largely, a mystery. The four identified parties quickly left Malaysia and were not even specifically named in the trial. The suggestion is that the two women were being used as scapegoats.
The tricky geopolitical elements here have made the film’s distribution a bit of a headache. Since it premiered at Sundance last year, domestic rights have bounced from company to company in the effort to get it to audiences. White has said that some have been nervous to take on the film because of the Sony hack.
It’s all the more reason to seek out “Assassins,” which through Greenwich Entertainment is currently in select theaters, including virtual cinemas, and will be available for rental on demand in January. It will shock, enrage and enlighten.
“Assassins,” a Greenwich Entertainment release, has not been rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 104 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr