In 2017, Kim Jong-nam — the half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and once the favored heir apparent of their late father and former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il — was assassinated. The perplexing circumstances surrounding the murder and subsequent prosecution of the two women accused of the crime is examined in director Ryan White’s real-life crime thriller exposé. Assassins, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, will premiere in theaters on December 11th and will be available for on-demand viewing on January 15th.
“Trump was just taking office when Kim Jong-nam was assassinated in 2017,” White tells Rolling Stone. “So, this murder was a top story for a couple of days, but then it basically disappeared as Trump dominated the airwaves. Almost everybody I talk to remembers the headline, but few people know what happened after or what the truth is.”
The exclusive trailer opens on the disbelief that a “happy-go-lucky” woman could be one of two women accused of assassinating Kim Jong-nam, the “favorite son of Kim Jong-il.” As details unfold in the clip, it discusses the threat Kim Jong-nam posed to King Jong-un’s “legitimacy,” which lends motive to what comes next.
“I think it’s become common to view Kim Jong-un as a caricature, but our film takes him more seriously than that,” White says. “He’s not merely a nepotistic buffoon who has lucked his way into the power position he holds now. He has carefully and strategically consolidated power and maintained control over the years, and this assassination was a key part of that strategy.”
Kim Jong-nam was assassinated at a busy Malaysian airport after being exposed to VX nerve agent. In the trailer, footage from the airport shows a woman wrapping her hands around his eyes in a seemingly playful manner. Two women were arrested following the assassination, but the women claimed they thought they were part of a TV prank show.
“We knew these two women were facing execution for the crime, and most people on the ground in Malaysia were telling us that they were going to be convicted,” White says. “I had never made a film in which the stakes were truly life-or-death, so the need to make the film quickly and thoroughly was paramount.
“I also wasn’t able to directly access the women for the majority of the filmmaking process, because they were in prison,” he continues. “I’d see them every day on their way into trial, handcuffed and surrounded by machine guns, but it was the first time I’d made a film about people I hadn’t met.”
What ensues is a harrowing account of manipulation of two women who were eventually found innocent of murder and an unveiling of a politically motivated assassination that presents as “the perfect crime.”
“My personal experience as a filmmaker investigating this story was so full of twists and turns, so I hope audiences go on that same journey when they watch the film,” White says.