To quote from Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird “You can choose your friends but you sho' can't choose your family”. Life would certainly be more harmonious for many if you could, as family relationships can be exhausting.
For many, it’s simply a case of putting up with the offending family member, or perhaps distancing yourself from them as much as possible.
Or, if you come from a certain background, you could pull a few strings and have said family member bumped off, as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is alleged to have done in regards to his half-brother Kim Jong-il.
This fascinating documentary follows this truly extraordinary story, which benefits from being almost too bonkers to be true.
Despite being next in line for the top position, after going on an ill-advised family trip, Kim Jong-un, eldest son to the deceased North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, found himself exiled from his homeland.
Although this meant he could never return to North Korea, it did come with some benefits, like travel, which Kim Jong-un got a taste for. On the 13th February, 2017, he was leaving Malaysia to return to his new home of Macau. But he never made it out of the airport alive. He was approached by two women who managed to attack him with VX, the deadliest nerve agent on the planet. Within an hour, Kim Jong-il was dead.
The two young assassins were soon caught, and were put on trial for his murder. Although there was no denying they had murdered him, their legal defence set out to inform the judge that perhaps neither were fully aware of their actions, and that something more devious was actually at play here.
Ryan White’s documentary is the intriguing account of a remarkable turn of events. Initially it feels like a telling of family betrayal, but that is only half the story.
Although there is no way of confirming it, it’s widely believed that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered the assassination of his half-brother, seeing him as somewhat of a thorn in his communist side. With the newfound freedom that came from his exile, Kim Jong-il was all too happy to talk to the media about his views on the political state of North Korea, which allegedly didn’t go down well with his half-bro. So instead of dialling him up on Facetime and having a word, the leader, dubbed Rocket Man by then president Trump, may have decided that it would be best if he just removed his relative from the scenario, by having him murdered.
Now there’s quite a lot to unpack regarding that aspect of the story as it is, but the film doesn’t dilly dally as it develops further with the assassins themselves.
Without giving too much away, the film then focuses on the recruitment process for both the young women, Siti from Indonesia and Doan from Vietnam, neither of whom had a history of criminal activity and especially no record of murder. To say that the North Korean agents’ method for getting them on board was audacious is an understatement, and it’s at this point that the documentary becomes more about their story, and less about the feuding brothers.
Assassins is one of those documentaries that manages to examine a truly bizarre period, and despite it delivering the facts in a detailed and factual manner, may somehow still leave you feeling that it was all too absurd to be real. It really is the epitome of life being stranger than fiction, because no-one in their right mind would consider this remotely realistic if it appeared in the pages of a novel. But here you have it, a page-turning documentary if you will.
To be fair to White, he does very little in terms of presentation, relying simply on the facts as they took place, and the contributions of pertinent characters involved in the case, allowing the film to develop under its own steam. The result is a superb take on an extraordinary event in history, which may well spark further intrigue, in thinking if they can get away with this, what else have the powers that be gotten away with over the years?