North Korea holds a near mythical status in world politics. Its current president, Kim Jong-Un, is the only living resident of the nation to have global renown, and yet little to nothing else is known about the country itself. Living under his totalitarian rule, North Korea is practically isolated from the rest of the world, allowing very few people in or out, and any stories linked to it are regularly cast aside as hearsay. Three years ago, when the half-brother of Kim Jong-Un, Kim Jong-Nam, was assassinated while walking through a Malaysian airport, this was the biggest news story to hit the land in years, with bizarre circumstances surrounding the victim and his assassins, supposed chemical warfare, and a likely political subplot to the whole thing.
So; how come the documentary about this exact topic felt so unfulfilling?
There’s a delicate balancing act at play with executing a documentary. Parity must be found between the presentation of fact for the viewer, and enough intrigue into its story to entertain over the course of its runtime. In Assassins, director Ryan White skews too far towards merely presenting the facts and frustratingly leaves the viewer wanting more. With so many spinning plates from the murder itself to Kim Jong-Un’s rumoured role in proceedings, it felt as if Assassins wasn’t sure which aspect of the case to home in on, leaving an unfocused, scattergun feel to the whole thing.
There’s certainly drama to be found in the treatment of the two women used as the titular assassins. Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong were dragged into this bizarre plot in a manner that is best left discovered through the documentary in one of its few genuinely curious segments, but it’s the way in which the story unfolds and how it impacts them that left me unsatisfied. Little attention is paid to their families in all the hubbub of committing a politically motivated (citation needed) murder, the relationship between the two women thrust into the spotlight was barely given the light of day until the closing moments, and there’s nary a mention of the dark cloud that follows them for the rest of their life. Assassins spends so much time divulging as much information as it can, that it ends up becoming a cold approach to a tragically human story.
Speculation this may be, but one must wonder whether the power of the North Korean government themselves could be to blame for the documentary’s lack of bite when it comes to its dive into the shallow end of the country’s politics. I was surprised at how much access the filmmakers had behind the scenes for much of the film, but its most important moments and players were left frustratingly out of reach. There are no interviews with anyone on the opposing side that leaves Assassins lacking real insight into what exactly their case was beyond mere guesswork. There is scope to be had with the lack of interviews as an opportunity to tackle the all-powerful stranglehold Kim Jong-Un has on his country and its representation in the media, but aside from a couple of mentions again towards the backend of this documentary, it largely goes untouched.
I was left wondering exactly what this documentary intended to do. It barely gleans any insight into North Korea’s inner machinations as a totalitarian state beyond what we already know because, by the documentary’s end, the status quo hasn’t shifted. The two women thrust into the spotlight that they both so desperately desired (Doan’s ambition to become an actress is one of the documentary’s rare emotional beats) feels like bit-part players in a story that should have been centred solely on them. It commits the cardinal documentary sin of raising more questions than it answers, so the final question, arguably the most important question left for Siti and Doan, of “now what?” only adds to the frustration of the documentary; I left it knowing barely anything more than I did when it started.
A lacklustre documentary content with merely presenting us with facts and rarely exploring deeper, Assassins gave me little information that I couldn’t have found out reading a Wikipedia article.
ASSASSINS IS AVAILABLE ON PVOD JANUARY 15th 2021