Compelling Documentary on Women Fighting for their Lives

North Korea reacted negatively to the hit Korean drama “Crash Landing on You,” yet has maintained its silence on Ryan White’s documentary “Assassins” since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this time last year. If the film's premise is to be believed, Pyongyang is only being consistent as the unseen yet powerful character in this seemingly unreasonable tale of murder reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s tomes.

On February 13, 2017, Kim Jong-nam, former heir apparent to the seat of power in North Korea, was assassinated in Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia's largest. An Indonesian migrant worker and an aspiring Vietnamese actress, strangers to each other, were charged with the crime and imprisoned. Meanwhile, the world moved on.

Sadly, that is how news cycles outside of 24/7 international coverages go.

“Assassins” fills the gap during the years Donald Trump (and, locally, Rodrigo Duterte) hogged the headlines, uncovering how Asian geopolitics came to play in the pursuit of truth when the rest of the world wasn't keenly watching. It attempts to humanize the suspects Siti Aisyah and Đoàn Thị Hương, and find out whether the accused truly conspired to kill Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Those who did not follow this story and are coming in blind are in for a shock. Don't Google anything before you see “Assassins.” On the surface, it is hard to believe why the women did it and how they found themselves at the center of an international murder plot.

The most powerful documentaries borrow storytelling techniques from film narratives, and White's opus is no exception. Audio clips juxtaposed with snippets of prison cells and courtrooms not only add a sense of mystery, but also show how elusive truth is. The film also takes us to the underbelly of Kuala Lumpur, where those close to desperation in looking for a better life find themselves ready to believe anything.

Tellingly, the documentary lacks any official reaction from the North Korean government, save for archival footage of its ambassador in Kuala Lumpur. To offset, a journalist who has been covering developments in the country was tapped as a resource.

“Assassins” conveys a keen understanding of Asian geopolitics. The incident and subsequent trial involved at least four governments. It reveals the shaky diplomatic relations between Malaysia and North Korea. It shows the length with which Indonesia will protect its citizens while critiquing Vietnam’s lukewarm response. China and Japan are also brought up — with the former giving a new home to Kim Jong-nam and his family after they sneaked into Japan to visit Disneyland — an act which is said to have cost him his position in the North Korean hierarchy.

All told, “Assassins” is a well-produced documentary on how the politics of North Korea can affect its neighboring countries and their people. It is also an eye-opener about how vulnerable impoverished migrant workers are in the region.

“Assassins” streams today at for Philippine audiences.


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Founded in March 2008, VERA Files is published by veteran Filipino journalists taking a deeper look into current Philippine issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”

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