When someone offers you your fifteen minutes of fame and the chance to star on a TV prank show, you wouldn't expect the cost of that decision to land you in prison and on death row for murder. Of course, whether or not that was ever the scenario at hand becomes progressively clearer in Ryan White's ('Ask Dr Ruth') documentary, 'Assassins'.
In February 2017 at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia, Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korea leader Kim Jong-un, was attacked by two girls who rubbed his face with VX chemical agent, and an hour later - he was dead. The girls in question, Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong, claim they were tricked into believing they were part of prank show for TV, and seemingly had no idea who this man was, or that they had caused him any harm. Was it all a trick? Was this one of the most brilliantly masterminded political assassinations in history? Or maybe - was it even a little bit of both? 'Assassins' follows the trial and story of these two women, and presents audiences as a jury with all the facts and figures to ask: do you believe this most unbelievable of stories?
True crime series and podcasts are all the rage, so it's little surprise that 'Assassins' leans heavily into the genre. Put together as a collective to resemble part-political thriller and part-international espionage mystery, 'Assassins' unfortunately comes off more as a well-handled recap video you'd find on YouTube rather than anything more creatively substantial.
The overwhelming and frankly inundating miniseries that dominate Netflix have probably done more damage to the true crime genre than good. Audiences are used to stories that stretch out to over nine hours of footage, and usually provide a big twist three-quarters of the way in that completely changes the landscape of the tale. It's made it possible for shows like 'American Vandal' to succeed, easily being able to capture and replicate what makes these series so popular.
However, 'Assassins' is no mockumentary, and definitely benefits from being a feature-length as opposed to yet another mini-series. By spending two years on location in Malaysia and following the subjects closely, the story that White unveils is legitimately incredible. It may seem far-fetched or absurd that not only could a political assassination happen in public during broad daylight, but that the story is relatively unknown, especially for something that happened in the age of social media. As someone who knew little about this event, I was glued to the screen in anticipation and intrigue to see what would happen to these two girls on trial. As we learn early on in the film, they are good girls who come from good families - the problem being that they are manipulated into wanting to make something of themselves.
'Assassins' unfortunately comes off more as a well handled recap video you'd find on YouTube, rather than anything more creatively substantial
'Assassins' would have benefited more by going deeper into the psyche of these girls, and less about simply recapping the events of the story. I understand why it had to be done, but for a documentary that runs close to two hours long, there is nothing more than interviews with the lawyers and journalists who are able to tell the story from their perspectives. Echoing my earlier words, it makes for interesting viewing if this bizarre story is unknown beforehand, but if you're going into this film with any prior knowledge of the events, there's not much here to sink your teeth into.
From early on, these girls admit that they rubbed "something" on the face of this man which led to his death, but it's up to their lawyers to convince the world - and more importantly, the judge - that they had no idea what was really going on. What follows is a documentary that interrogates this very question - did they know what they were doing? 'Assassins' is an exploration of desperation, diplomatic relations, and justice.
Whether or not there is justice come the end of the documentary - you'll have to wait and see. I greatly benefited by going into this film completely cold, but at the end of the day, this is a story that happened not so long ago, and most people will know how these events unfolded. I really wish there was less storytelling and more creativity, but alas, what is left is a run-of-the-mill documentary that presents a great story, but little else.