A brilliant piece of reportage uncovering the truth behind an organised killing.


In bringing to the screen the story of the assassination of Kim Jong-nam Ryan White has organised his material with a skill that should not be underestimated. Kim's killing on 13th February 2017 by two women in the international airport at Kuala Lumpur is a famed event, but unravelling what lay behind it and how it came about calls for a many-sided narrative which White unfolds smoothly and adroitly.


The victim was the older brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un and the film makes no bones about concluding that it was he who was responsible. The death was caused by two women, the Indonesian Siti Aisyah and the Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, who rubbed the VX nerve agent on the face of Kim Jong-nam just before he was due to board a plane to return to his home in Macau, China. CCTV footage offered clear evidence as to this, but when the young women were brought to trial the key issue became what they had believed they were doing. Were they trained killers as charged or were they, as they claimed, innocents who thought that they were participating in a prank video while unaware of the potential fatality of their actions and ignorant of the identity of the man targeted?


Ryan White's film follows through from the day of the assassination to the conclusion of the trial but it has much more to fit in too. The political issues involved mean that the film looks back on the history of the Kim family and explains how it was that the older brother was not the one who came to power. No less relevant are the respective home backgrounds of Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong who did not know each other. Through comments from their lawyers and taped statements by the accused themselves, we follow the extraordinary course of events that led both of them to believe that they had a chance to make money by participating in what were said to be fun videos, a popular trend at that time. There is a wider picture to be filled in also as we discover when a Malaysian journalist, Hadi Azmi, and Anna Fifield, The Washington Post's bureau chief in Beijing, comment on other aspects of the situation. In this way we learn about additional suspects who were North Koreans and who were allowed to leave Kuala Lumpur unhindered and with the minimum of investigation.


Covering all this ground so adroitly is a triumph for White. Arguably his film could be a shade more succinct in its closing minutes and on occasion the music score is over-insistent, but that hardly matters. A complex tale is told with admirable clarity and the story that emerges - so extraordinary that it might well have felt impossibly exaggerated had it been a work of fiction - is compelling from start to finish.




Featuring  Siti Aisyah, Hadi Azmi, Doan Thi Huong, Anna Fifield, Asria Nur Hasan,  Benah Hasan, Azura Alias, Salim Bashir, Gooi Soon Seng.


Dir Ryan White, Pro Ryan White and Jessica Hargrave, Ph John Benam, Ed Helen Kearns, Music Blake Neely.


Tripod Media-Dogwoof.
104 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 29 January 2021. Available on BFI Player. Cert. 12.