Kim Jong-nam was famous in East Asia for a reason: he was the son of Kim Jong-il, former leader of North Korea, and the half-brother of Kim Jong-un, who took over the post despite it being hereditary and by all rights should have gone to him, as the elder sibling. But Jong-nam was not about to lie down and take this ignominy, as he left the country to live in China after a scandal involving an illegal trip to Disneyland in Japan, which was a no-no given how American that place was. From his new home, he was the focus of much interest, and would criticise the regime he had left when asked in the media, which rankled with Jong-un.
So much so that in 2017, while in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, Jong-nam was approached in an airport by two girls who covered his eyes from behind... This effectively murdered him, since the girls had a poisonous nerve agent on their hands and by rubbing it into his eyes, its toxicity affected him so badly that within a short while he was suffering, and soon he was dead. The hunt was on to find these young women, but when they were arrested the case did not seem as cut and dried as it might have, for they protested their innocence, saying they had no idea of who Jong-nam was, nor that he was now deceased. So what was happening?
A bizarre method of assassination appeared to be the answer to that, with the two killers planted as stooges in that airport to carry out an execution completely obliviously - they were utterly convinced they were taking part in a hidden camera show, like Candid Camera or Jackass. We are offered extensive recordings of the two women by director Ryan White, subtitled either because of strong accents or lack of English, as he followed their trial, one which increasingly looked like a set-up to have someone scapegoated for the crime instead of going after the actual instigators and schemers. It is explained that Malaysia has a pretty good relationship with North Korea, and that was under threat when this murder took place, with diplomats in Pyongyang held hostage.
Until, that was, some extremely suspicious characters were sent back to the north where they could get away from justice and leave the girls to face the music. Though there was plainly a conspiracy involved, it was obvious that even if we did not know who specifically these men were, they were clearly under the command of Kim Jong-un, who was at the time consolidating what had been a shaky power base. Now, with one of his most visible critics eliminated and nobody from his homeland so much as accused, never mind convicted, for the murder, the "Dear Leader" looked stronger than ever, arguably stronger than his father thanks to the nuclear weapons programme and world leaders like Donald Trump taking him seriously (or purporting to).
But what White did was never lose sight of those two terrified patsies who were taking the fall for the machinations of some particularly ruthless politics, and they were convincing when they said all along they had believed they had been fooled into thinking they were part of a hidden camera prank show, either for television or online. The tantalising promise of internet fame propelled them to agree to whatever the plotters demanded, it was a better deal than prostitution that too many young women of their status would be lost to, and they were not to know it would potentially put them on Death Row. Although you may not know the outcome, there was a sense of predictability here, and that made it a shade samey from start to finish, though you were engaged enough to want to see justice prevail. And yet, you can also see why so many were suspicious of the accused, it's such an outlandish story that involves so much naivety that you wonder how anyone could have been so stupid. Desperation may explain that.
[Assassins will be available on Dogwoof On Demand (click here to watch) and other digital platforms from Friday 29th January 2021.]