Curators, Features, Filmmakers, Interviews

Ryan White interview: “It’s a story about the exploitation of young women”

We talk to the director of Sundance hit Assassins…

How scary would it be to make a documentary about a supposed murder scheme planned by the North Korean government? Ryan White is perhaps one of the few people on the planet who can answer that question. In his latest documentary, Assassins, White unravels the unbelievable story of two women who were involved with the assassination of Kim Jong-nam (Kim Jong-un’s brother). I spoke with White about Assassins at this year’s edition of the Sundance Film Festival.

Before we talk about Assassins, I’ve been following your work for a while now and it always seems like you pick the most interesting topics for your documentaries. How do you go about deciding what to focus on?

I’ve never sought out a documentary and found a story and started telling it. It’s almost like for all of them, the stories have found me in some way. With Assassins, a journalist named Doug Bock Clark – who is one of our executive producers – wrote an article about it about three years ago that was hugely popular on CQ. And he reached out to me because I had just released The Keepers on Netflix, which was this really popular true crime series. He said, “A lot of people from the industry are trying to option my article. Do you mind just giving me advice?” I had a conversation with him and was so captivated by the story that a month later, I was in Malaysia with Doug doing a preliminary shoot. And a lot of that first strip actually made it into the film.

Given that the film is about North Korea, a lot of people will be interested in learning about how you did your research.

Yeah, the Sony hack really ruined everything for anybody trying to make a film about North Korea. It’s a film that has terrified Hollywood and distributors, even though I actually see our film as treating Kim Jong-un quite respectfully and not characturing him. I feel like our film respectfully traces his rise to power, and his assassination played a part. But we always wanted the film to focus on the two women and finding out about their lives. So the first cut of the film didn’t even really have a lot of Kim Jong-un’s family story. But the more we watched cuts of the film, we realized that the geopolitical context of his rise to power in the Kim dynasty was an important context for people to understand. I also think the Kim dynasty fascinates people, and in entertainment, books or television series about the Kim dynasty do really well.

And did you face any barriers or resistance during the research process? Were there certain things that you were hoping to get that you couldn’t in the end?

It’s a film that sounds really scary from the outside to people. My mom was terrified after I said I was making it, but so were my distributors. But the scariest part to me was not the North Korean angle, because I believe North Korea orchestrated this murder as a spectacle for a reason. They wanted this attention. They wanted to send a signal to the rest of the world or their enemies that they could take you out at any time in a public place on camera. The scarier part for me in making the film was that it takes a deep dive into how the women were recruited, which was within the underbelly of Kuala Lumpur in the world of prostitution, drugs and brothels. We filmed a lot in that world to figure out how she got recruited by the North Koreans, and that was the world where you really got a sense that people didn’t want you here. People definitely didn’t want you filming here and asking questions about how this all happened.

Was there a specific example of this that really stood out?

There’s that scene in our film with the taxi driver named John, who was a critical witness in showing that he connected Siti to the North Koreans. And when we met him, it was at 1:00 AM at a coffee shop in Kuala Lumpur. He arrived and was meeting me and Doug (the journalist), didn’t enter the coffee shop after we spotted him, and then just took off running and sprinted out of the mall that we were in. Doug had to chase him down and convince him to come back, and persuaded him to go on camera for us. But that was the type of thing that made you realize how spooked out people were in North Korea. And all these people that were critical for the film in telling how the women were recruited were very afraid of going on the record, and that’s when you felt really scared.

A still from Assassins by Ryan White, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
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Despite all this fear, why do you think people still chose to participate in the documentary?

For Siti in particular, I think they feel guilty in some ways because they know she’s innocent, and they feel guilty that they were the ones that connected her to the North Koreans. I think they felt some sort of duty because the real story was not coming out in the trial at all. None of how the women were recruited or the prank show came out in the trial and none of this is public knowledge in Malaysia. And I think people who were insiders or undercover sources felt in accordance to prove that Siti was innocent, since the entire world thought she was an assassin. I think that’s why they participated in the end; to tell the world she’s innocent.

While watching the film, I wondered if the North Korean government ever contacted your team during the production, or if they even knew you were making this documentary?

Our film was super secretive for years and we even had the FBI consulting on it. That helped us kind navigate how to not get hacked or how to not have our film leak out. We were very careful from a cybersecurity standpoint, making sure we were taking every precaution to not get hacked. As far as I know, the North Korean government has not reached out to me. I don’t know when or if they will ever see the film, but again, I feel like they orchestrated this assassination for a reason and they got away with it. So I don’t think there’s much in our film that they could bristle at. It’s just a blow-by-blow account of how they got away with this, which is what they wanted to begin with.

For a lot of people who might recall hearing about this story on the news when it first broke out, what do you think Assassins adds to the overall discourse of the story?

What I realized very early on was that even within my inner circles of friends and family, or people in the industry, everybody had a glimmer of recognition when you talked about this assassination but they knew very little about it. Everyone remembered that Kim Jong-un’s brother died, some people remember that it happened in an airport, but nobody knew the story in depth. Even my friends who are really well-informed at geopolitics didn’t really know much. And I believe it’s because this murder happened in February 2017, which if you look back at history, was Trump’s first month in office. So for American audiences especially, our airwaves were dominated by other stories. This was like a huge blip on the radar when it happened because everyone ran back to Trump’s presidency. but that’s why I’m really excited about this film. And even when I’m talking to journalists now, I’m like, “Don’t ruin the ending,” because almost nobody I talk to knows what happened to the women. I can’t think of a crazier murder plot ever probably throughout history, and to be able to tell this totally bizarre, crazy story to people [as a surprise] is because of Trump.

I’ll just end off by asking you one last question. I think a lot of people who watch this film will always be questioning whether or not these two people are actually ‘murderers’. As filmmaking, while you were making this documentary, how did that conversation play out in your own head? Did you have a specific view initially? Did that change over time as you started making the film?

For me, and I think almost everyone from the outside when this happened, you just assumed these women were guilty. And I wouldn’t fault anyone for that. Of course, if someone’s pulling off a political assassination with a chemical weapon in a public place, you would never assume that those people are not guilty, I was of that mindset too, and I think most of the world was. But that’s where I think this is probably one of the most bizarre stories. It felt so cut and dry, and it felt like these women were guilty. But for me as a filmmaker, when I started really delving deeply into the backstories of the women, to have my eyes opened was chilling. The idea that they might actually be innocent. We shot this for two and a half years, and every time I was in Malaysia or Indonesia or Vietnam, I started to get the sense more and more that they might be innocent. And so I think that’s the real heart of the story. To me, it’s a story about the exploitation of young women, especially in the era of social media and peaking stardom. And when you really look beyond the headline and start peeling back the layers, that there might be deeper truths there. That is what I think is so important about this film, that these two women were virtually convicted from the very beginning. Everyone assumed they were guilty. And hopefully, our film peels back those layers and people will see it from a completely different perspective.

Assassins screened as part of Sundance Film Festival 2020.

About the author

Wilson KwongWilson Kwong Wilson Kwong
Wilson is a cinema enthusiast based out of Toronto, Canada, who escapes from his day job by writing random thoughts about cinema on the internet. Although he has a longstanding penchant for Hong Kong cinema, he considers himself to be an advocate for Asian cinema in general. He has been attending the Toronto International Film Festival every year since 2005, and more of his work can be found on his website:
Read all posts by Wilson Kwong

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