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Review: Murder, mystery and August Wilson highlight this week’s documentaries

Doan Thi Huong and Siti Aisyah are escorted out of the courthouse by armed guards in the documentary "Assassins."
(Greenwich Entertainment)

‘Assassins’

Many, many news cycles ago — way back in 2017 — a strange story surfaced from southeast Asia. At a Malaysian airport, two women killed the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by rubbing his eyes with a deadly chemical agent. When the authorities nabbed them, the assassins were shocked and insisted they’d just been hired to pull a prank.

Ryan White and Jessica Hargrave’s documentary “Assassins” tries to get to the bottom of what actually happened that day. The filmmakers scrutinize the video evidence, document the trial and interview people who know these two women — as well as people who understand Korean history and politics.

White and Hargrave are hobbled somewhat by the larger mystery of North Korea: an uncommonly secretive state, largely isolated from the wider world. Spokespeople for the government have disavowed any responsibility for the airport scheme; and though investigators have looked at every North Korean who happened to be caught on video at the airport that day, ultimately they can only speculate about who was behind the plot. Even the women prosecuted for the crime don’t know enough about who hired them to be helpful.

Still, while “Assassins” may be somewhat unsatisfying as a true-crime story, it’s provocative as an examination of power. This film is less about the assassination itself and more about the circumstances that led to two innocent young ladies getting exploited — and the confidence of some people that they can steal and kill at will.

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'Assassins'

In Vietnamese, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, English and Malay, with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

Playing: Available via virtual cinemas, including Laemmle Theatres, and in limited release where theaters are open

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

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‘Finding Yingying’

Ronggao Zhang and Xiaolin Hou lead a march in the documentary "Finding Yingying."
Ronggao Zhang, Yingying’s father, left, and Xiaolin Hou, Yingying’s fiance, lead a march in the documentary “Finding Yingying.”
(Kartemquin Films)

In the summer of 2017, a University of Illinois graduate student named Yingying Zhang disappeared from her campus. When her family arrived from China to aid in the search for their daughter, another Chinese college student living in Illinois — Jenny Shi, who attended Peking University at the same time as Yingying — started filming their experiences, covering what would be the worst few years of their lives.

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The documentary “Finding Yingying” doesn’t spend a lot of time on what happened to Yingying. Once she’s pronounced dead and a suspect is arrested, the movie shifts to the trial, which drew a lot more media attention in China than it did in the United States. Meanwhile, Shi considers how her subject’s experiences mirror her own. The director describes the loneliness of foreign students, dealing with the pressure of having loved ones across the ocean who expect them to excel in America and to make their fortunes.

At times, Shi tries to cover too much ground with this film. She’s following the story as it evolves, which means that sometimes it’s about who Yingying really was, and sometimes it’s about the stress her loss puts on her bickering parents. In the final third, the movie spends an inordinate amount of time on Yingying’s mentally disturbed killer and his regretful girlfriend.

Even at its most scattered though, “Finding Yingying” is haunting, largely because it’s so personal. In a way, this feels like Shi reflecting on her own life by honoring someone who had hers cut short.

'Finding Yingying'

In English and Mandarin, with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Playing: Available via virtual cinemas, including Laemmle Theatres

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‘Through the Night’

Nunu comforts Noah in the documentary "Through the Night."
(Long Shot Factory)

In a cozy house in New Rochelle, N.Y., Deloris “Nunu” Hogan and her husband Patrick (a.k.a. “Pop Pop”) run Dee’s Tots Daycare, a 24-hour facility that provides an essential service to mothers who work multiple jobs or overnight shifts. Loira Limbal’s documentary “Through the Night” is partly a touching tribute to the Hogans — who have sacrificed a lot of themselves to make sure that parents know their kids are in loving hands — and partly an indictment of a socioeconomic system that relies on low-paid labor but doesn’t value it enough to provide a basic level of care for workers’ families.

“Through the Night” is mostly a low-key slice-of-life, following the Hogans and some of their clients (the children and their parents) over several typical days, spread across two years. The film’s portrait of a community coming together out of necessity is often warm and reassuring. Nunu and Pop Pop are excellent caretakers; and the youngsters seem happy and well-behaved.

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But Limbal also makes it clear throughout the film that even though all these fine folks are making do, the arrangement is fragile. If someone gets sick or if money gets tight, the whole situation can go awry. This quietly engaging documentary is also subtly political, showing with clear eyes how good people are trying to patch gaps in our society that shouldn’t be there in the the first place.

'Through the Night'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Playing: Available via virtual cinemas, including Laemmle Theatres

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‘Giving Voice’

August Wilson, from the Netflix documentary "Giving Voice."
(August Wilson Estate/Associated Press)
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In conjunction with Netflix’s release of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” — an excellent screen adaptation of August Wilson’s Tony-nominated 1982 play, featuring Chadwick Boseman’s thrilling final screen performance — the service is also offering the documentary “Giving Voice,” a unique way into understanding Wilson’s work. Directors Jim Stern and Fernando Villena follow a half-dozen teenagers from around the United States as they participate in the August Wilson Monologue Competition.

Well-known Wilson interpreters Viola Davis and Denzel Washington offer their insights into the playwright’s “Century Cycle,” in which he documented 20th century African American life in 10 stories, set in 10 different decades. They describe how Wilson tapped into something at once universal about the human experience — writing about families, work and the burden of pride — while also explicating the specific situations faced by the descendants of slaves.

But the real stars of this picture are the kids, who in many ways represent the century following the Century Cycle. They’re the product of the culture that August Wilson helped create; and as their mentors coach them in how to interpret the likes of “Fences” and “King Hedley II,” they’re establishing a vital connection between the past and the present.

'Giving Voice'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Playing: Available on Netflix

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‘Queer Japan’

Tokyo Rainbow Pride celebration, from the documentary "Queer Japan."
(Altered Innocence)

Though a lot of Japanese culture has become popular worldwide — from music to comics to games — the country’s varied LGBTQ+ subcultures have remained fairly niche, known mainly to interested locals. Director Graham Kolbeins aims to correct this with his documentary “Queer Japan,” which profiles a handful of artists, trendsetters and community leaders. Kolbeins weaves together interviews with a number of these fascinating people, in between arresting sequences that show what they do.

The structure of “Queer Japan” is a little too loose, bouncing between topics without much of an evident plan. It’s probably best to think of this movie like a gallery installation, leading audiences back and forth through rooms dedicated to everything from the rubbery costumes and sculptures of the nonbinary performance artist Saeborg to the aggressively erotic bondage comics of the gay manga artist Gengoroh Tagame. There’s a lot to see and to think about here, all well-curated by a documentarian with a clear passion for his subject.

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'Queer Japan'

In Japanese and English with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes

Playing: Available via virtual cinemas, including Laemmle Theatres and digital

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