Sundance 2020: Assassins superb geopolitical thriller on Kim Jong-nam assassination, vindication of two Southeast Asian women

When filmmaker Ryan White went to Kuala Lumpur to follow the trial of the two women charged with the 2017 assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, he believed that he would never be able to talk to Đoàn Thị Huong from Vietnam and Siti Aisyah from Indonesia.

“It seemed certain they would be convicted and executed,” White says in an interview with The Utah Review. He adds that he originally intended to finish the documentary as quickly as possible and release it, even if that would have meant circumventing the film festival circuit.

That changed with the stunning and unexpected acquittal of Siti midway through the trial and the subsequent release of Đoàn who was serving a prison sentence for a lesser charge connected to the murder. “I’m happy I was able to rewrite the story,” he explains. “These two women became sisters. Both were in solitary confinement and communicated through the walls that separated them. They spoke different languages but learned enough English to communicate with each other.”

Their stories along with the investigation of the assassination and the trial make the Assassins documentary an outstanding, memorable geopolitical thriller and a major highlight among the Sundance premieres.

Ryan White, director of Assassins, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Assassins continues White’s impressive success at Sundance. The Case Against 8, which premiered in 2014, won the U.S. Documentary Directing Award at Sundance. Last year, he brought Ask Dr. Ruth, which later was picked up by Hulu.

White thought he had his fill of the true crime drama genre after directing The Keepers, the Emmy nominated series on Netflix but when journalist Doug Block Clark was looking for documentarians to do justice to the story of the assassination, he turned to White. Clark’s deep dive The Untold Story of Kim Jong-nam’s Assassination appeared in the September 25, 2017 issue of GQ magazine and many producers were scrambling to option it for a film project. “I was impressed with Doug’s work and after calling my co-producer Jessica Hargrave, we decided to throw out hats in the ring,” White recalls. Clark also became executive producer on the project.

Clark’s long-form piece established the contours for the project, which also encompassed the diplomatic reactions and responses among the Malaysian, Indonesian and Vietnamese governments. He wrote, “But as the international crisis churned, the identities and motivations of the two women remained mysterious. One was said to be a prostitute from Indonesia and the other an escort from Vietnam. But how had two young women from rural Southeast Asian villages become ensnared in an international assassination plot? And why had they been manipulated into killing Jong-nam in such a gruesome way? … The answers had likely been hidden in plain sight by the North Korean spymasters, and their revelation was designed to make the global order tremble.”

White transcends the complicated intersecting demands of this story with impressive clarity, pushing well past the conventions of the true crime genre and framing it within the enormous consequences in geopolitical affairs. The film makes clear that Kim Jong-un, unlike his late father Kim Jong-il, embodies a far more formidable, dangerous presence that defies the mocking parodies of him as a bumbling, two-bit tyrant. White also makes the most of the unexpected opportunity after the surprising trial developments to portray Đoàn and Siti in their true light that contradicts the impression of them as mysterious femme fatales caught in the midst of a major international incident.

White, an avid follower of geopolitics, was aware of the assassination, which occurred in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb. 13, 2017 when Kim died after being exposed to the VX nerve agent. The story, however, dropped quickly from the news radar, especially because much of the press attention was focused on President Trump’s first weeks in office and speculation about the direction his administration would take.

Both women claimed that they were prepped as actors in a TV prank show , and the surveillance footage from the airport shows them participating in trial runs, going behind the backs of men and surprising them as they smeared oil, hot sauce or lotion on the faces of unsuspecting targets. The women aspired toward better prospects so they believed this prank show was an opportunity. Đoàn, who appeared previously as a Vietnam Idol contestant, had hopes of an acting career. As for Siti, a single mother who worked in a garment industry sweatshop factory, as Clark mentioned in his piece, “the only hint that Siti knew the identity of the North Koreans was that before the murder she told a friend that she was going to become a star in Pyongyang.” As Clark noted in his research, both women corroborated the story believing they were recruited to participate in a prank comedy show, when interrogated separately.

A still from Assassins by Ryan White, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Venturing into Malaysia’s legal system also presented interesting challenges. White explains that lawyers, by nature, are “very private and very conservative” about giving access to journalists or documentaries. He had finessed his abilities with the civil case issues in The Case Against 8 but this was an international criminal investigation. Also crucial to anchoring the context was journalist Hadi Amzi, who was covering the legal proceedings, along with input from Anna Fifield, the Beijing bureau chief of The Washington Post who wrote last year’s highly regarded book The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un.

In this instance, White says the legal teams welcomed the production team’s arrival, especially Gooi Soon Seng, who was Siti’s defense lawyer. The film highlights dramatic courtroom scenes, proving once again how truth can outdo fiction in extraordinary circumstances. One is the judge’s scathing pronouncement of the women’s guilt and their death sentences. At this point, White assumed he would have to rush to complete the film, once the executions were carried out. In contacting their family members, White realized how unaware they were of the magnitude of the women’s dire prospects.

Later, White captures just how shocking the scene was when the prosecutor announces he is withdrawing all charges against Siti, leading to her immediate release from custody. Staying on top of late-breaking developments in the trial presented logistical challenges throughout the two years of the production process. Traveling time to Kuala Lumpur was a 30-hour trip so White typically needed two days’ notice to ensure he would be there in time. On the weekend prior to Siri’s acquittal, Amzi heard that something dramatic would be announced in the courtroom on Monday, but the defense teams also had no idea what was in store. “I was in the press room watching the closed-circuit TV coverage of the courtroom,” White says. “They were switching back and forth in English and Malay and the video was low quality. Everyone tried to get as close to the speakers to hear was being said. And then suddenly journalists rushed out of the room. It was total chaos and confusion. It was the most surprising moment of my filmmaking career.”

That sensation emanates in the scene, as presented in the film. With Đoàn’s release shortly after, White finally had the opportunity to talk to the women for the first time and his portrait of them is sensitive and empathetic, rounding out the context in a dimension that rarely is seen in geopolitical thrillers such as Assassins.

White adds another significant context-building layer in terms of Kim Jong-un’s ascendancy on the global stage, as the North Korean has eliminated any rival members from the family who might claim themselves as legitimate heirs to the late Kim Jong-il’s governing powers. It’s been nearly a decade since Kim Jong-un assumed the mantle in North Korea. Many will remember how he was lampooned in The Interview and the subsequent cyberattack on Sony Pictures as retaliation.

Prior to the election of Trump, the North Korean leader believed that a meeting with the U.S. president would be critical to legitimizing his nation’s presence in the international community. Of course, Trump’s narcissism, warmed by his exhortations of “beautiful letters,” led to the first meeting ever between leaders of the U.S. and North Korea. Since then, North Korea has developed its nuclear weapons program with alarming speed. Late last year, Trump, mired by impeachment and other scandals, hoped to set another summit with North Korea. Kim’s official statement was essentially, “Nah, we’re good,” signaling that the country does not need, at least for the moment, the U.S. to stake its geopolitical claims.

And, that is part of the final lesson from White’s latest documentary: the murder of the North Korean leader’s half-brother with the involvement of two totally unsuspecting women indicates that anyone is disposable in the eyes of Kim Jong-un. That should be a most frightening prospect to Americans and anyone else in the world.

Assassins is a project that received a Utah Film Center‘s fiscal sponsorship and the center’s co-founder Geralyn Dreyfous along with her colleagues at Impact Partner Films are the film’s executive producers.

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