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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Assassins documentary review: when a murder is not a murder

Assassins green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

The story of the women duped into *checks notes* killing Kim Jong-un’s brother is more bonkers — and sad, and gripping — than we’ve heard. Utterly fascinating; the stuff of a Hollywood thriller.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

Remember back about a million years ago, in 2017, when the news broke that two women had *checks notes* assassinated Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport? With a deadly nerve agent? In broad daylight, in public, brazenly in full view of CCTV? And remember how when the women were arrested, they claimed that they believed they were merely participating in a video prank, not committing murder?

Assassins Siti Aisyah Doan Thi Huong

Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong were not the hardened killers they were treated as.

Remember that? Cuz I do… and I feel like we never heard anything beyond this. Who were these women? Were they really hardened killers? What happened to them? What the actual hell was going on here?

Herewith Assassins, from American documentary filmmaker Ryan White, who has made an incredible effort toward finding answers. Turns out the story is so much more bonkers — and sad, and perplexing, and angry-making, and gripping — than that. And the mystery is not yet fully solved. What happened to Siti Aisyah, from Indonesia, and Doan Thi Huong, from Vietnam, is so utterly fascinating that if this isn’t already on its way to being made into a Hollywood feature thriller, it surely will be soon.

This is a tale of spycraft and subterfuge by wily North Korean operators — they remain elusive here — who reeled in two young women from small-village backgrounds, eager for fame but mostly for a way to just make some decent money. The incredibly convoluted deception that they were acting in a Japanese prank-video TV show went on for months, and it’s completely plausible that they found it wholly legitimate. They were gaslit on an almost unimaginable scale.

Assassins

There was intense media interest in the trial in Asia, not so much in the West.

Yet it took White and his team to assemble the evidence of this, with the help of the women’s lawyers. The prosecution of the women — who didn’t even meet each other until after they were in police custody — by the Malaysian authorities looks shockingly incompetent. Or was it corrupt? Were they under political pressure to find someone, anyone accountable for this shocking crime? And what’s the North Korean angle on this? What possible benefit could accrue to Kim Jong-un in having his brother killed?

Well. The more White drills down into the details, the bigger the plot becomes… and it’s still playing out today. The events depicted here will almost certainly continue to reverberate for years, perhaps decades, to come. Assassins is totally riveting first-draft-of-history stuff, and only Chapter One, at that.


Assassins is in virtual cinemas in the US, which help support bricks-and-mortar cinemas during the coronavirus pandemic, and also available on all the usual streaming on-demand services; see links below.

Assassins is in virtual cinemas in the UK via Dogwoof On Demand, and on other digital platforms; see links below.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2020’s other new films.



green light 5 stars

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Assassins (2020) | directed by Ryan White
US/Can release: Dec 11 2020 (VOD)
UK/Ire release: Jan 29 2021 (VOD)

MPAA: not rated
BBFC: rated 12 (infrequent strong language)

viewed at home on PR-supplied physical media or screening link

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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