Marie Claire Australia
There is a theory that what was applied to Kim Jong-nam’s face was a modified version of the nerve agent VX, which had been split into separate compounds and only became effective when mixed together, which could explain why the women survived the exposure to the chemical. “This was brought up in the trial as a possibility by the defence counsels as well as a toxicologist,” says Hadi Azmi, a journalist who covered the case and who appears in the film.
After the attack, Siti went back to her job at the Flamingo Hotel, where she was soon arrested. Doan returned to the airport the following day to meet Mr Chang for another prank, but he didn’t show up and his phone number was no longer in use. When she tried to get a taxi, she was arrested. What was the motive for such an ambitious hit? Kim Jong-un has form, and a taste for ruthless executions.
“The normal MO for North Korean assassinations abroad was to do it very quietly in dark alleys,” says White. “Not something caught on camera – so public and brazen and orchestrated. So you have to wonder whether Kim Jong-un was really out to humiliate his brother in a very darkly comic way.”
Kim Jong-nam was his half-brother, the first son of Kim Jong-il, and had originally been expected to succeed their father but had fallen out of favour. Kim Jong-un became the Supreme Leader in 2011, on the death of his father. Though Kim Jong-nam lived in exile in Macau, his movements were monitored by the regime, and there had been two previous attempts on his life. He was hardly a threat, but there was
speculation that he had been a CIA informant (more than $100,000 in cash was found in his bag after he died, and there was evidence he had met with a CIA agent and information had been downloaded from his computer).
With this in mind, the filmmakers consulted with the FBI to ensure they had the highest levels of cybersecurity. “I’ve never had to deal with anything like that in my films – where the subject matter has proved they can attack the highest echelons of government,” says White. “I don’t want to be melodramatic but I felt afraid the entire time … you start to wonder how much of that is valid and how much is paranoia. Being paranoid in that murky purgatory space for two years was not a nice place to be.”
For their part, Siti and Doan both had prestigious lawyers assigned to them by their governments, and they amassed a considerable amount of evidence in their defence – for example, thousands of text messages with nothing to indicate the women had any knowledge of an assassination.
Still, when the trial began, in October 2017, things did not look good. The prosecution were not interested in pursuing those who they referred to as “the four other suspects” who had “trained” the women. If Siti and Doan were found guilty, White says, “our plan was to release the film right after they were convicted but before they were put to death, to try to start an international outcry, to use our film to prove their innocence, since it wasn’t coming out in the courtroom.”
For the director, this dilemma was the most challenging part of the whole
“These girls are going to hang” – journalist Hadi Azmi
project. “How do you ethically put a film out where you are proving these women’s innocence but the likely ending is that they’re going to be executed?
“The longer we were making [it], the more we became convinced of their innocence, and the more likely it seemed that they were going to die,” says Hargrave. “We did not anticipate what happened at all. That was a total shock.”
What happened was this. Once the prosecution case had been presented, the judge had the option to either acquit the women or hear their defence. His comments indicated that he already thought they were guilty. But everyone who met Siti and Doan was struck by their naivety, Siti’s lawyer in particular.
Speculation over the women’s guilt reached fever pitch. White was not allowed to film in the courtroom, but it was filled with journalists. After the judgment, Hadi Azmi wrote, “They are f-ed,” in his notebook. “These girls are going to hang,” he thought.
The trial was set to resume in early 2019 and the defence prepared to put forward their side of the story. The filmmakers had been tipped off that something big was going to happen, but they had no idea what. Then the prosecutor requested that the charges against Siti Aisyah be withdrawn.
No reasons were given and Siti, overcome with emotion, was released and shortly after flew back to Jakarta. It turned out the Malaysian government had come under pressure from the Indonesian government. At this point the women had been in jail for two years, and had become friends; they were held in neighbouring cells. At first Siti had been too ashamed to contact her family, but she confided in Doan, who said, “We became like sisters.” After her friend was acquitted, Doan was traumatised and alone. An adjournment was requested.
In the end, the defence never got to present their evidence. But the film does that instead. In April, Doan’s murder charge was dropped in favour of the lesser charge of “causing harm”, to which she pleaded guilty. (Vietnam has close relations with North Korea, and the Vietnamese government had perhaps been more reticent to pressure the Malaysian government.)
Doan was released on May 3, 2019, and found out about the relationship between the North Korean brothers only when she got home. “It’s only now that I really understand. I never imagined I could be involved in his murder,” she said. “I feel really sorry for him.”
The four other suspects are still at large, though on Interpol’s wanted list. There has been no justice for the victim, and no discernible consequences for Kim Jong-un’s regime.
The women are still in touch. After Siti was released, she said, “I am so happy to be at home with my family and friends but I am still sad. It’s as if those North Koreans saw me as if my life has no value whatsoever, like I am a nobody. A nothing.”