One of these days, somebody should (and probably will) make a documentary about Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader of North Korea. An essential chapter of it would be about how when he came to power in 2011, after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il (who had ruled the country since 1994), just about everyone, from North Korean political leaders to observers around the world, strongly suspected that Kim Jong-un was totally ill-equipped to take the reins of a police state as fearsome as North Korea’s. Raised in Switzerland, he seemed like a soft-bodied brat who had somehow stumbled, through the fate of dynasty, into the role of Supreme Leader. (That’s why Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg could treat him as such a plausible satiric foil in “The Interview.”)
But history has proved the doubters wrong. Instead of acting like a wuss who now had nuclear toys, Kim Jong-un proceeded to consolidate his power by purging his regime of skeptics and enemies, wooing the people by taking steps to modernize his country’s economy…and purging more enemies. When you see Kim Jong-un now, he no longer looks like an overgrown baby with a weirdly coiffed military fade. He’s got a killer gleam, and the hair looks kind of…cool. He resembles a cross between the young Chairman Mao and GZA. He’s become the dictator as ice-cold badass.
The event that shifted his image, and that did the most to billboard his gangster attitude, took place on Feb. 13, 2017, the day that his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, was assassinated in the middle of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia. Most global political observers believed at the time, and still do, that Kim Jong-un, like some totalitarian version of Michael Corleone, was the one who gave the order to murder his relative; he wanted him out of the picture. But the way the killing went down was bizarre. Kim Jong-nam, a royal-family exile, had lived for more than 10 years in Macau, China, and was strolling through the brightly lit airport, on his way home, when he was attacked by two young women — Siti Aisyah, 25, and Đoàn Thj Huong, 28. Each of them came up, in turn, from behind, “Guess who!” style, and put her hands around his face, rubbing it with the deadly nerve agent VX. He was taken to the airport clinic but was dead within an hour. That’s how toxic VX is.
Who were the two women? That’s the gripping subject of “Assassins,” a lively but sinister page-turner of a documentary directed by Ryan White (“Ask Dr. Ruth,” “The Case Against 8”). Like a number of docs I’ve seen at Sundance, notably “The Dissident” (about the murder of the Saudi Arabian Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi), “Assassins” takes a relatively recent news scandal and reassembles it into an illuminating big picture. The events may be familiar to news junkies, yet after being shocked by the murder of King Jong-nam back in 2017, I admit that I followed the story for a while and then lost track of it. The key revelation of “Assassins” — who these women were, and how they came to commit a headline-making hit job in broad daylight — had somehow escaped me (as, I suspect, it did a lot of people). As you watch the movie, I promise that there are moments when your jaw will drop.
“Assassins” is a terrific true-crime story, but it’s also a documentary thriller about the new world disorder. We’re shown photos and videos of the young women, and they look like grinning teenyboppers — Siti Aisyah, who is Indonesian, with bright red lipstick and braces, and Đoàn Thj Huong, from Vietnam, with her face poised somewhere between a sulk and a smirk. For a while, it may seem like we’re watching some bizarre nonfiction version of an indie thriller from A24: “Global Girl Assassins a Go-Go!”
The film wastes no time showing us airport surveillance footage of the attack. As Kim Jong-nam strolls with his suitcase, each of the women — with Đoàn clad in a white T-shirt that says “LOL” — comes up and does her thing (the second incident produces a minor tussle), then walks away as smoothly as Jason Bourne, each holding her hands away from her sides. Their guilt seems unambiguous, and if you don’t know what happened, the question in your head is: How were these two chosen and trained by Kim Jong-un’s regime? Don’t read on if you don’t want that spoiled.
The two, it turns out, were carefully chosen. And they were most definitely trained. But they weren’t trained to kill. They were trained to perform in goofball Japanese candid-camera prank videos. That’s right: The audacious public murder of Kim Jong-nam was, in spirit and execution (pun intended), the world’s most lethal episode of “Punk’d.”
In Malaysia, where both of them were living, Đoàn was an aspiring actress, and Siti needed money (she was desperate enough to have flirted with working in the sex industry), and we see how they were plucked and groomed to be the showgirl mascots of videos that look like mild versions of “Jackass” stunts, all designed to be shown on YouTube. There really is an industry of this stuff, and the way it works is: You get your assignment (goosing a pedestrian, springing a fake giant spider on some ladies in the park), the whole thing is caught on cell-phone video, and you get paid. Siti and Đoàn shot dozens of these videos, not realizing that it was all in preparation for the one they would do at the airport. And when they did, they had no idea what they had done.
“Assassins” captures, via audio interviews, the complete shock the two were in when they were told they had committed a murder. By that point, they’d been arrested and were awaiting trial. If found guilty, the penalty in Malaysia is death by hanging.
But “Assassins” also sketches in what happened from the top. It shows us how Kim Jong-un was elevated over his half-brother in the first place (a great story that might be out of some North Korean version of “Succession”), and how much he still feared him; according to the movie, the Chinese had provided sanctuary to Kim Jong-nam based on then idea that, if necessary, Kim Jong-un could be removed and replaced. The slightly mad tale of the North Korean fascist dynasty, established by Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, is riveting, and so is the story of the eight North Korean henchman — including the Malaysian-based chemist who made the VX in his home lab — who were guiding the entire plan.
The film culminates with Siti and Đoàn’s trial, and for the sake of suspense I won’t tell you how it comes out. What’s the upshot of “Assassins”? On a human scale, it generates tremendous sympathy for Siti and Đoàn, who, it’s clear, were not responsible for their actions. Yet even as the film tells their story, it is really, underneath, the tale of a conspiracy so leave-no-fingerprints diabolical that it becomes the political version of a perfect crime. And that’s enough to give you a chill. When Kim Jong-nam was killed, it was to neutralize the threat, however distant, he posed to Kim Jong-un. But it was also Kim Jong-un’s threat to anyone who might challenge him in North Korea, and maybe his threat to the world: “Here I am now. F—k with me at your peril.”