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Greenwich Entertainment; TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP via Getty From left: Siti Aisyah, Kim Jong Nam and Doan Thi Huong
Every word of the following paragraph is true.
In February 2017, two young women — 25-year-old masseuse Siti Aisyah and 28-year-old Doan Thi Huong, a waitress who dreamed of a career in show business — unwittingly assassinated the exiled brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un as he passed through a Malaysian airport. The women, their hands glistening with a VX nerve agent they smeared on Kim Jong Nam's eyes and face, thought the entire thing was a prank to be filmed for a show; they mistook the liquid VX, which can be lethal in any dose, for some kind of oil. Surveillance cameras caught the shirt Huong had worn just for the occasion: In big black letters, it declared "LOL."
Both Aisyah and Huong, who washed their hands before leaving the airport, were arrested within days — touching off years of legal proceedings and international media attention in large part because their lawyers said they had been tricked.
Investigators, however, were unswayed. Tricked into poisoning someone in public? Aisyah and Huong were accused of murder. If convicted, each would be put to death.
Eight North Koreans were suspected in the attack, but only one was temporarily jailed. Four of them had returned home before the investigation even began.
South Korean intelligence officials said there was "a standing order" for an assassination since 2011, but the North Korean government insisted it had no involvement. Perhaps the man had simply dropped dead of a heart attack.
Kim Jong Nam — who five years earlier sent a letter to his brother seeking mercy, pleading that his family had "nowhere to hide" — died en route to the hospital after the poison had exhausted the muscles of his heart and lungs. He was quoted in his final minutes telling authorities he had been sprayed with a liquid. "Very painful," he said. "Very painful."
Documentarians Jessica Hargrave and Ryan White were only vaguely aware of any of this when, a few months after Kim was killed, the phone rang. A journalist colleague who was working on a feature for GQ had more to share, he said, about what had really happened. Hargrave and White — a creative duo: she produces, he directs — had just finished investigating a nun's cold-case killing for a Netflix miniseries.
The North Korean story was something else entirely.
"It just seemed so unbelievable," Hargrave remembers now. "We went in thinking, This can't be true, but it's still worth looking into."
Says White: "When the heart of your story is one of the most dangerous regimes, it adds a whole layer, I think, of fear and danger to the filmmaking process. That was always haunting us throughout the making of this film. We knew we were revealing things about what the North Korean regime had done, and therefore was there going to be retribution? Were we being watched, or was our physical safety or cybersecurity at risk?"
Some three years later, Assassins is the result of their work.
AFP via Getty From left: Kim Jong Nam, a as a boy, with his grandmother in 1975
TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP via Getty Kim Jong Nam in 2001
The documentary, available on demand, draws on interviews with Aisyah and Huong and their families as well as their attorneys and outside experts and, most startling and most intimate, surveillance footage around the killing as well as troves of messages and social media posts from both women.
In sum Assassins provides perhaps the most complete picture of Kim's death, the forces that set it into motion and the two women who — when the other assassins had fled — were left to face the justice system, not really aware of what they had done.
The public had trouble making sense of them, too. Were Aisyah and Huong trained killers, pleading naïveté? Or were they girlish, almost-too-perfect pawns of a government with a lurid reputation for public executions?
Who, exactly, was playing who?
The headlines document what happened next, after the women were arrested and put on trial: Aisyah was released late into her prosecution, her charge dropped under diplomatic pressure from her home country of Indonesia; Huong, of Vietnam, pleaded to a lesser crime of causing injury with a dangerous weapon and has since been released from prison.
Assassins follows them all the way through. But it has other themes in mind.
"This is a very absurdist, surreal story," White tells PEOPLE. "But at the center of it, it's sort of a cautionary tale of the dangers of social media, the internet, how people leverage those when they're seeking fame or a better life or a better paycheck. That story is universal. While Doan and Siti probably ended up in the most dangerous of situations, where that can go wrong, the world that they were ensnared in is happening all over the place for young people."
MOHD RASFAN/AFP via Getty Siti Aishah (second from left) and Doan Thi Huong (right) are escorted by police during a visit on Oct. 24, 2017, to the scene of Kim Jong Nam’s killing as part of the trial proceedings.
The film has the structure of a spy thriller but a beating heart. "The main trust of the film is humanizing them," White says. "That's sort of the magic of documentary filmmaking, is that it allows you the time to really explore those types of things."
"It felt like, ourselves included, nobody knew what the truth behind this assassination was and definitely nobody knew whatever happened to the women," White says.
And yes, Assassins is outlandish. But so are the events it meticulously documents. Indeed, as the film makes clear, the women believed they had been hired for actual videos and participated in multiple actual online pranks with their handlers before their final job.
"I think what really started to turn the corner for us was as we got closer with their defense teams and were able to get access to the materials, specifically for me when we started to be able to see their social media profiles and to read their text messages," Hargrave says.
"We just got unfiltered logs of their correspondence, including the correspondence with the North Korean operatives," Hargrave continues, "and you can watch over time as each of them is preyed upon, tailored to their own vulnerabilities and pulled deeper and deeper into the web."
In the documentary, one of Aisyah's attorneys recalls Aisyah's shock at the charge against her. "Siti, she in fact thought that she was part of a prank show and we had to persuade her, to tell her, 'Look, someone really died.' "
Hargrave says they began filming in 2017. A couple of weeks after that fateful call from their reporter colleague, White flew to Malaysia. They worked for some two and a half to three years.
It bore fruit. In one reversal, the documentary describes how the police said a key witness, a taxi driver, was untraceable — and then the film immediately cuts to him on camera.
The voluminous surveillance camera files were another boon to the investigation — "Once you could watch the behavior of the women as it was unfolding, you started to realize it corroborated everything that they were saying," White says — and, with time, so was the cooperation of them and their families.
There were challenges in gaining their trust. "The whole story of the documentary is that these women were previously ensnared by a film crew promising only good intentions. Here we come, doing the exact same thing," White says.
It was about two years into production that White met them at all: "They had their own very understandable concerns in saying, 'I'm not sure if I want to participate in this.' Thankfully, they both came around."
"It's difficult for a film to take so long," Hargrave says, "but it was also beneficial for us so that we could build those relationships over time."
Adli Ghazali/Anadolu Agency/Getty Siti Aisyah (right) appears during the press conference at the Embassy of The Republic of Indonesia in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on March 11, 2019.
White says the team "spent a lot of time in both of the villages where they were from," and Assassins details the differing lives that brought Aisyah and Huong, who had never met, together at the airport in 2017.
"Both were [from] very different places, but both were very similar in a way," White says.
Aisyah and Huong had lived in villages in Indonesia and Vietnam that were in the orbit of larger cities. "Doan ended up in Hanoi seeking fame there, and Siti ended up in Jakarta in the sweatshop industry, which led to her whole trajectory of seeking a better job outside of Indonesia," White says.
The documentary also shows what happened to the women after the trial and after the crush of media attention. White notes how Huong, who had gushed of her hopes of acting and singing and once appeared on Vietnam Idol, became wary of public attention — of even having her name said where someone might overhear. "Doan is very sensitive, extremely sensitive, far more than I ever expected," he says.
Via email, Huong tells PEOPLE she relied on her faith while she was in custody and during the trial — "I prayed to God four times a day" — and that she has since returned home with her family, where she works in online retail. "I have to take care of my family. Staying with my family makes me happy," she says.
Minh Hoang/AP/Shutterstock Doan Thi Huong answers questions from the media at the airport in Hanoi, Vietnam, in May 2019 after being released from prison.
Aisyah, White says, has also returned to her hometown in Indonesia much different from her life in Kuala Lumpur. In Assassins, Aisyah describes moving first to Jakarta — where she married and divorced and had a son at 17 — and then went to Kuala Lumpur, looking for better work.
White says she has more recently talked of going to cosmetology school.
Huong, he says, was in tears watching Assassins. "She said she loved the film … but that she was very upset with herself in the scene where she returns to Vietnam and she's smiling a lot at that press conference."
She did not want to make the wrong impression with her joy. By then she had learned that other people see in you what they want.
"But I was so happy I can see my family," she tells PEOPLE. "I forgot everything in the moment."