With a title for his latest film like “Assassins,” Ryan White didn’t need to spend much time debating the particulars of whether Đoàn Thị Huong and Siti Aisyah were involved in 2017 assassination of Kim Jong-nam, a potential heir to extend the political dynasty of the Kim family in North Korea as the half-brother to current leader Kim Jong-un. Huong, a former Vietnam Idol contestant and model, and Aisyah, a single mother from Indonesia who worked in a garment factory to make ends meet, seemed like the last people to be implicated in a murder plot in Malaysia where Kim had gone to vacation, but nonetheless they can be seen as clear as day on surveillance video smearing VX nerve agent on his face at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Whether the two should bear any responsibility for their involvement, however, is another matter entirely and was well-worth the thousands of international miles the filmmaker and his team racked up over the past two years attempting to make sense of the wild trial of Huong and Aisyah, who may have carried out the crime, but gradually appear to have been pawns of the North Korean government in Kim Jong-un’s attempts to consolidate power after taking control in the wake of his father Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011. While White’s engrossing legal thriller, told with complete access to the defense teams for Huong and Aisyah, could simply follow the case with no shortage of twists and turns to be worthwhile, “Assassins” becomes something far more fascinating in cutting across borders to expose a world divided by class rather than culture where the powerful can prey upon the dreams of those without much to hold onto what they have and expand their empire.
It would be criminal on our part to say much more about “Assassins,” but White fortunately had a few choice words about putting together the gripping film, which premiered this past weekend at Sundance where the filmmaker has become a regular presence with such projects as “The Case Against 8” and “Ask Dr. Ruth,” and conveying the sense of surprise that he experienced in making it to audiences unaware of the case with disturbing implications for us all.
How did you get interested in this?
It was something I knew about, and the assassination happened in February, 2017, so if you look back at history, that’s Trump’s first full month in office. I think a lot of Americans have that kind of ping of recognition of like, “Oh, yeah, I remember when that international assassination happened,” but very quickly our airwaves went back to Donald Trump, so often when I was talking to friends or colleagues, and they’d have some wild version of events of like, “Weren’t those the women with the poisonous lipstick or shot that man with darts?” so it’s like everybody remembers something happened, but no one knows what.
Two years ago when the trial began, Doug Bock Clark, a journalist who’s one of our executive producers now, reached out to me. I just had a true crime and investigative series about the Catholic Church on Netflix called “The Keepers” that came out, and he had just written a really incredible deep dive investigation into Siti Aisyah, the Indonesian woman, and what led her to the moment of the assassination for GQ that was hugely popular. He reached out to us and said, “A lot of documentary filmmakers are trying to option this article. Would you guys jump on the phone and just give me some advice?” And we did, and we were so compelled by Doug’s article and everything he told us on the phone that we thought maybe we should do this ourselves. We ended up taking a preliminary trip at the beginning of the trial with Doug to Malaysia, to meet all the people that were involved in his article, and we just captured so many amazing things that we decided to do it.
You’ve traveled to other countries before to make films, but this encompasses so many. Did the international aspect of it make it more complicated?
Definitely, because it’s one 15-hour flight and then one 13-hour flight with usually a long layover in between for me to get to Kuala Lumpur from Los Angeles, so when you’re following a trial that’s unpredictable, it’s horrendous to have that travel schedule to get there. Thank God we were embedded with both legal teams, so they were often giving us an early heads up on critical junctures in the trial that would give me and my team the amount of time to get there to Malaysia. But we also often had to use Malaysian crews and we found some amazing shooters in Malaysia that we could send out to cover if something happened on a moment’s notice, and then we would get on airplanes and by the time we were there, we could document what had happened. But that was definitely one of the biggest challenges with just the amount of time that it took to get to so many of these unpredictable moments.
With your experience covering a trial in “The Case Against 8,” were you better prepared to cover a case as it unfolds like this or know how to present it to an audience in a compelling way?
“The Case Against 8“ was definitely my rehearsal for making another legal film because that took five years, and we were following again two law firms, and lawyers, God bless them, their work is not the most cinematic thing to shoot, so we definitely mastered that when someone’s sitting at a desk all day and even though they’re doing incredibly important things, [asking ourselves] how do you bring that to the screen in a compelling way? So I think I was a step ahead with this one.
Because of “The Case Against 8,” filmmakers that are about to follow a lawsuit will ask me for advice, and I always say it’s the most painful process just because lawsuits move at a glacial pace. They’re unpredictable, so I was pretty attuned to that already having been through that for five years that it luckily it didn’t drive me crazy, but then how do you make a trial cinematic and suspenseful? Unlike “The Case Against 8,” [where] our biggest challenge was every American knowing the ending because it was a top news story for years, with “Assassins,” most people don’t know what happened in that courtroom, so I’m hopeful that people won’t look it up beforehand and that they’ll get to ride the journey that we did, having no idea what was going to happen to these women.
You also don’t have any access to them since they’re sequestered from public view. Was it a challenge to build a film around characters you couldn’t meet?
Yeah. I’m the type of filmmaker who totally invests myself in people’s lives and my interest in documentaries is living side by side with my main subjects. That’s always my pitch at the beginning. Even when I made a film about Serena Williams, I remember having a conversation with her saying, “I’m going to be with you all the time with my camera, and if you don’t want that, I understand. We won’t make the film,” and she was up for it.
This film was so bizarre in the fact that I was totally embedded in the lives and the pasts of Siti and Doan, but I never actually got to meet them, and every day at court I got to see them walk in, but I only knew versions of them. I knew what people were telling me about them, and we had access to their text messages, their social media profiles, and to their phone calls, so we were able to kind of create who we thought they were. But that was a really fascinating part of the process because we also had to be open to the fact that they were assassins and that they were that duplicitous, so it was a very odd experience to have them as main subjects and I hope the film takes the audience on that journey [where] at the beginning, the women definitely look guilty. They’re caught red-handed on camera, and then the film slowly starts to reveal just as I was starting to learn in my own kind of personal journey as a filmmaker like, “Oh, but this is their version of the truth,” and then the question becomes, “Is that even possible?” It’s almost like a “Black Mirror” episode when you look at just the log line, and it’s so unbelievable that it becomes a guessing game about whether the unbelievable is actually true.
Is there anything that happened that really changed your ideas about the film you were making?
When we got access to their digital footprints. Because both legal teams were vehement that their clients were innocent, they were willing to hand everything over to us and say like, “You look at it too,” because that stuff wasn’t coming out in the courtroom. Once you were able to look at what they were doing on their phones or computers day to day, which I think is a real truth lens into who someone is, and how they were communicating with the North Koreans or the people who connected them to the spies, then you start to get a real sense of what the truth is.
When we got access to all that, I knew that was going to become a real skeleton of the film, and I hope that [when] a trial in Malaysia and the Kim Dynasty may feel like such a far away story to Americans or Europeans, when you look at these actual two women, it’s such a universal story of the world of social media and seeking fame as young people. Once we had all of [Siti and Doan’s] social media profiles, I knew that was going to be the fabric of the film – this world where social media and fame-seeking has taken over, and this is probably a most glaring example of where it can go horribly wrong.
Formally, was it exciting to make a techno-thriller like this with all those dark alleys and that hard driving Blake Neely score? It’s like a Michael Mann movie.
I’ll take that as a compliment. [laughs] Tonally, it was so different than any documentary I’d made – “The Keepers” was a true crime thriller, but that was so heavy because it was all child sex abuse and so many decades of crime. [“Assassins”] was bizarre more than it was heavy, and so I wouldn’t say it was fun to make, but to get to shoot it like film noir because so much of it happens at night in the underbellies of these cities in the world of prostitution and drugs and spies, and when we did the sound design, and also the score, it was probably the most creatively fulfilling film that I’ve got to make so far.
You’re a regular at Sundance by now, but what’s it like to get to the finish line?
We just got to the finish line yesterday [a day before the start of the festival], and this is the latest I’ve ever taken a film up for the Sundance threshold because we were still shooting up until a couple months ago. It’s what I’ve been throwing myself into the last two years, and I’ve been so imbued in this world of these people that it’s exciting to finally get to birth it to the world. Of all the films I’ve made, I think this is by far the most unknown story, so I hope people go in not knowing much and it’ll surprise people and move them far more than they expect.