The documentary Assassins has been released in India as the same week as No Time To Die, the new James Bond movie. Assassins focuses on a mode of dispatch that rivals, if not eclipses, the methods by which characters perish in the average Bond film: a toxic chemical rubbed on the face, causing death within minutes.

There are also elements of a Shakespearean tragedy in Ryan White’s film, which is out on BookMyShow Stream. Assassins revisits the sensational murder of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. On February 13, 2017, Kim Jong-nam was at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on his way back to Macau. Two women accosted him and rubbed the life-threatening VX nerve agent on his face. Kim Jong-nam died an hour later.

The women were soon arrested, as were several North Koreans living and working in Malaysia, including a chemist. The assassination, which matches the brazenness of attacks carried out on Russian dissidents in recent times, was quickly blamed on Kim Jong-un.

Kim Jong-nam was said to be the favoured son of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s leader between 1994 and 2001. After Kim Jong-il’s death, the throne went to Kim Jong-un, his son from his second wife. The new supreme leader’s intolerance of dissent and potential political rivals was extended to Kim Jong-nam, who had survived a few assassination attempts in the past, the film suggests.

Kim Jong-nam’s death was captured on CCTV cameras at the airport. The real mystery unfolded later, and keeps the suspense factor alive in Assassins: were the two women who killed Kim Jong-nam – one an Indonesian and the other a Vietnamese – working for North Korea too, or were they tricked into the plot, as they claimed?

The 2020s documentary is based on the GQ magazine article The Untold Story of Kim Jong-nam’s Assassination by Doug Block Clark. The film persuasively proves that the women, Siti Aisyah and Doan Thị Hung, were duped into thinking that they were participating in a prank show.

By using interviews with the women’s lawyers and audio recordings of their trials and following the trail created by damning CCTV footage, the filmmakers provide a breath-taking example of scapegoating. The gullible working-class women who unwittingly executed a perfect murder themselves became the victims because “somebody had to be charged because somebody was dead”, a Malaysian journalist wryly remarks.

Ryan White and editor Helan Kearns expertly lay out an investigative thriller filled with beats of suspense and notes of ominous music. A picture also emerges of coldly pragmatic diplomacy, which is willing to permit a miscarriage of justice in order to maintain friendly relations. As Siti and Doan form an unlikely friendship behind bars, behind-the-events suggest that your average Hollywood espionage thriller about murderous tyrants and corrupt accomplices isn’t that far-fetched. If anything, such films might even be found wanting.

Assassins (2020).