Netflix might have cornered the market in true-crime documentaries over recent years, but Assassins – out now on Dogwoof on Demand, Prime Video and more – is here to prove there are shocking real-life stories that haven't been covered by the streaming giant.
Directed by Ryan White (who previously created Netflix's The Keepers) and based on a GQ article, Assassins examines the remarkable events surrounding the murder of Kim Jong-nam – the half-brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un – in broad daylight in Malaysia's international airport in February 2017.
The two people who killed Kim Jong-nam were 28-year-old Vietnamese woman Doan Thi Huong and 25-year-old Indonesian woman Siti Aisyah. Both were seen on security footage approaching Kim Jong-nam from behind and covering his eyes with their hands, which were covered in VX, the most lethal nerve agent on Earth.
Kim Jong-nam was dead within an hour, while the two women were seen running away and heading to separate bathrooms, seemingly keeping their hands away from the rest of their bodies and being careful not to touch anything. They were arrested shortly afterwards and faced the death penalty if found guilty.
This was far from the end of the story though, as the two women claimed that the incident with Kim Jong-nam was not, in fact, a murder but a video prank, and they had no idea what it was they were really doing. But what was more believable, that two women with no motive assassinated the half-brother of North Korea's leader in cold blood, or that they genuinely thought they were just part of a social-media prank?
Assassins takes a comprehensive look at this extraordinary story, covering every twist as they happened during the trial. There are revelations that wouldn't look out of place in a fictional thriller and if you aren't aware of the story, we're not about to spoil them here because you probably wouldn't believe us.
But even if you did religiously follow the story between 2017 and 2019, Assassins will still have the power to surprise. It has unprecedented access to the evidence used and key witness accounts, as well as insight from a local journalist covering the trial and the defence teams for both women.
What's more, this isn't a documentary where the experts are recalling what happened with their interviews perhaps coloured by what eventually transpired. It was filmed at the same time as the trial, so feels more immediate and as events unfold, even the people involved aren't aware what's coming around the corner. There are even testimonies from critical people involved in the incident that the defence teams couldn't get a hold of.
White's documentary is forensic in its coverage of the trial, but the biggest strength of Assassins is that the director never forgets about the two women involved.
Even with all the political brinkmanship and conspiracies at play (Kim Jong-un allegedly kept trying to kill his half-brother, threatened by his claim to power), White doesn't sensationalise the events or forget the very-real cost to Doan Thi Huong and Siti Aisyah.
It's easy to imagine a separate telling of this astonishing story that leans into the conspiracy and potentially even paints the women involved as targets of ridicule. White knows that the incident and the events leading up to it are absorbing enough to not need any cinematic embellishment, so he humanises the story instead and focuses on the lives of the accused.
Assassins showcases a tragic and all-too believable account of why these two women from separate countries could end up being unwittingly involved in a horrific event. With insight from their families and evidence from the trial, including earlier pranks they were involved in, it's hard to discount their claim that they were unaware of the ramifications of that fateful morning in the airport.
White steers clear of any definitive judgment and chooses instead for an objective presenting of the facts, leaving the audience to make up their own minds as the best true-crime documentaries do. But whatever conclusion you come to, you'll find Assassins hard to shake after its bittersweet ending. A must-see.
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