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‘Assassins,’ about death of N. Korea’s Kim Jong-nam, denied art film status

A poster for “Assassins” (Watcha, The coop)
A poster for “Assassins” (Watcha, The coop)
Local film distributors are protesting the Korean Film Council’s decision to deny art film status to “Assassins,” a documentary about Kim Jong-nam’s assassination.

Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and half brother of the country’s current leader, Kim Jong-un, fell out of favor with the regime and began living in exile in 2003. Reports said Kim Jong-nam lived in Macao before his death.

The film centers on the events that took place at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb. 13, 2017. Kim Jong-nam was killed by two women who covered his face with a toxic chemical nerve agent while Kim was waiting for a flight back to Macao.

Local distributors of the film -- The Coop, Watcha and Kth -- prepared to release it in South Korea in mid-June and submitted it to KOFIC for an art film classification review. On May 17, the distributors were informed that their application had been denied. On June 1, they jointly sent an application requesting its reevaluation, which KOFIC allows within 30 days of the day someone is notified of a decision.

“At first glance, people might see it as a political film. However, the focus is not on North Korea and the politics surrounding the figure of Kim Jong-nam, but the two female victims involved in the assassination in light of the actual testimony process, and their human rights issue that had been neglected,” Kim Sang-woo of The Coop said in a phone interview with The Korea Herald. “We believe art films should deal with topics that can shed light on societal issues that are not well covered, like this documentary.”

If the film fails another review, “Assassins” would then have to compete for screen time against popular films and foreign blockbusters at general theaters.

To qualify as an art film, a film has to meet four criteria: It must have high aesthetic value; be creative and experimental in theme, message and expression; show the lives of individuals, groups or societies that are rarely depicted in South Korea; and contribute to cultural exchange and diversity.

“Assassins” is director Ryan White’s fourth film, which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January last year. The film was produced by a US independent film distribution company, Greenwich Entertainment, and was first released in December last year on a small scale in the US, earning 98 percent on Rotten Tomato ratings, and 94 percent on the Buttered Popcorn Index. Previously, White won the director’s award for “The Case Against 8,” which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

“Assassin” was originally scheduled to be released in local theaters in mid-June, but distribution companies say it might be delayed for another month, depending on the results of the reevaluation. 

-- This article was updated to reflect Korean Film Council’s clarification that it is not “impossible” to screen non-art films at cinemas dedicated to art films, but “difficult.”

In order to recieve KOFIC subsidies, art cinemas should meet the quota for the number of art films screened. It is up to each art cinema to decide which films to show, according to the KOFIC.

By Kim Hae-yeon (
Korea Herald Youtube