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Assassins (2020)
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by Jay Seaver

"Get caught up in the decade's most bizarre murder."
4 stars

The 2017 murder of Kim Jong-Nam may not be the crime of the century (it's early and the world is only going to get stranger), but it is almost certainly the crime of the decade, one whose effects are felt on a global scale but whose most visible public faces are as modest as you get, tied up in the internet and a world where borders can go from barely noticed to crucial in an instant. It's a story Ryan White tells very well in "Assassins", well worth one's notice.

Kim Jong-Nam, the older half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, was killed in the Kuala Lumpur International airport on 13 February 2017, dying less than an hour after being exposed to the VX nerve poison. That his life should end that was wasn't entirely unexpected - Kim Jong-Il's eldest son was living in exile in Macau for almost ten years after being embarrassingly caught visiting Tokyo Disneyland and opining that maybe a People's Republic shouldn't have hereditary rulers, and that's the sort of person those opposed to a dictator can rally around - but the killers were: Siti Aisyah (of Indonesia) and Đoàn Thị Hương (from Vietnam) were two young women who claimed to have no idea that they were involved in anything more nefarious than filming prank videos for YouTube.

Despite making a documentary that is necessarily going to require its filmmakers to be somewhat hands-off - an American filmmaker is not going to get to interview North Korean government officials on this subject, and even if Malaysia wasn't one of the handful of countries that has normal relations with North Korea, its media and justice system are the type that don't welcome scrutiny - White is impressively able to cover multiple angles, embedding himself within the women's separate defense teams, forging an alliance with a relatively-independent local journalist that allows him to take a somewhat local view, and talking with Westerners who have studied North Korea without the film having to rely entirely on their questionable expertise. There are no unbiased sources for any story, but White and his team do a good job of finding people who can be informative even as the audience consciously corrects for their perspectives.

More than that, he does nice work in finding ways to approach the story from the multiple angles necessary, splitting time between how young women like Siti and Đoàn wind up in this situation and the background that makes Kim a target to the machinations of the trial, where lawyers must approach their co-defendants cautiously and forces well above the justice system can have an influence. White does impressive work laying out how Đoàn and Siti have different but parallel stories that lead to the same place, leaving the Kim family just vague enough to get the audience interested - if they weren't already - without making the why behind the murder the whole story. White fiddles with the timeline just enough that the audience isn't absorbing the backstory and the trial simultaneously, but never feels too far away from either.

Perhaps most importantly, he's able to integrate the thing that often cripples this sort of documentary - the vast amount of material one may just never know, or which remains out of reach of the filmmakers - into the film better than most. Đoàn and Siti are pawns in a conspiracy that has little to do with them, and the fact that they cannot personally affect the outcome much or ever particularly define themselves. White gets only a little bit of access and it's hard to know what to make of them, and in some ways they wind up thrown together with Kim Jong-Nam in that, for all their experiences are far out of the ordinary, a viewer can at least feel like they can relate to those people, while the shadowy masterminds, chemists, and world leaders are almost unknowable despite the power they wield. There's little resolution there, but how can there be? They barely seem like real people.

That can be a fatal flaw in a documentary, but it winds up a strength here. This story is larger than life even as it lands on people who are in many ways ordinary, and this may be the only way to keep both scales in view.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33957&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/24/20 19:42:33
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