'Assassins' Docu Review: A Sinister Page-Turner About Women Fighting for Their Lives


Whereas North Korea reacted strongly against the hit KDrama, "Crash Landing on You", it has maintained its silence on Ryan White's documentary "Assassins" since its Sundance premiere. If the film's premise is to be believed, Pyongyang is only being consistent as the unseen yet powerful character in this absurd tale of murder that can give Agatha Christie a run for her money.

On February 13, 2017, the former heir apparent to North Korean leadership, Kim Jong-nam was assassinated in Malaysia's largest airport. Two women who were strangers to each other - an Indonesian migrant worker and an aspiring Vietnamese actress - were accused of the crime, detained and then, 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 so-called killers of Kim Jom-nang - half-brother of current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un - were what they appear to be.

Those who did not follow this story and are coming in blind are in for an eerie surprise. 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 into snippets of prison cells and courtrooms not only adds a sense of mystery but also shows how elusive finding the truth is. The film also takes us to the underbelly of Kuala Lumpur, where those looking for a better life find themselves in situations, not as grandiose as the Petronas Towers.

What the documentary lacks however is the attempt to get an official reaction from the North Korean government, save for archival footage of its ambassador in Kuala Lumpur. It can be argued that requests for a sit-down interview were futile. To offset, a journalist who has been covering topics about North Korea was tapped as a resource.

Another good reason to watch "Assassins" is its understanding of Asian geopolitics. The assassination involved at least four governments. It reveals the shaky diplomatic relations between Malaysia and North Korea. It shows how Indonesia will go far into protecting its citizens while critiquing Vietnam's lukewarm response. China and Japan are also brought up - with the former giving a new home to Kim Jom-nang and his family after they sneaked into Japan to visit Disneyland - an act which is said to cost him being heir to North Korean leadership.

All in all, "Assassins" is a well-produced documentary of how the politics of North Korea can affect its neighboring countries and other nationalities. It is also an eye-opener about how vulnerable impoverished migrant workers are in the region. 

"Assassins" will stream on Jan. 28 at cinema76fs.eventive.com for Philippine audiences. The reviewer was given access prior to the release.


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