Glenn Heath, Jr.
House of Suh (Iris Shim, 2010). Much like John Kastner’s masterful crime documentary Life With Murder, Iris Shim’s House of Suh looks into the eyes of a young murderer and finds an evolving mystery yet to be solved. Both nonfiction films unfold like great thrillers, revealing key information slowly and deliberately at crucial parts of the story. But each consistently considers the layers of human trauma under investigation, exploring the hidden evil lurking just behind the memories and reflections of various talking heads. The title of the film refers to Andrew and his sister Catherine Suh, first generation Korean American siblings who were both convicted of planning and executing the murder of Catherine’s boyfriend Robert O’Dubaine in Chicago on September 25, 1993.
Shim begins the film with a brilliantly precise family tree of all parties comprised of intricate animated etchings—connecting these characters on a superficial level only to reveal later on how fragile those links are in truth. Interviews with Andrew (now serving a 100-year sentence in federal prison), other Suh family members, O’Dubaine’s brother Kevin Koran, and various lawyers from each side make up the core analysis of the film, and Shim’s calculated layering of perspectives allows this seemingly open and closed case to grow more complex and insidious. “My identity is the one Catherine developed for me,” Andrew states late in the film, confounding the audience’s perception of his guilt even in the face of obvious misconduct.
Despite all the procedural jargon and psychological analysis, House of Suh has a dark neo-noir heart pumping deception, betrayal, blackmail, and manipulation through the narrative with sly precision and unflinching honesty. It’s a devastating example of the American dream hollowed out by the rot of tradition and expectation. Hilariously, the devastating true story was notoriously remade into an all-Anglo television movie, as if the crime itself was okay to represent but the fact that the perpetrators were Asian was off limits.
The House of Suh
Directed by Iris K. Shim. USA. 90 minutes
Andrew Suh, once promising and popular at school, is serving one hundred years in prison for killing his sister’s boyfriend, Robert O’Dubaine. The House of Suh, a true crime doc from director Iris K. Shim, takes that cold-blooded premise and unspools it with sensitivity and precision, until all that remains is the heartbreaking family drama at its core.
Within minutes of the beginning of the doc, we learn what Andrew did to earn his sentence: when he was nineteen years old, at the behest of his sister, Catherine, he flew from college in Rhode Island to Chicago, his home city, and then took his place inside a dark garage, where he waited for four hours, until Catherine could lure O’Dubaine inside. Then, Andrew shot O’Dubaine, only to be arrested shortly afterward.
Shim doesn’t waste much time rehashing the banal details of the murder, which have already been the subject of an episode of America’s Most Wanted, and were even adapted into a made-for-TV movie (with white actors, though Andrew and Catherine Suh are Korean). Instead, the doc adroitly posits Andrew’s crime as an inevitable result not only of his mental state at the time of the killing, but of his upbringing and his personality. House of Suh establishes a complete rationale for a seemingly senseless act and, in the process, humanizes Andrew, even if it can’t exactly exonerate him.
The doc credibly characterizes Andrew as a person who consistently put family above all else, in accordance with the expectations of his strict Korean father, an ex-military man. Then, we’re given an explanation of how Catherine and O’Dubaine became Andrew’s surrogate guardians, after his father’s death from cancer, and his mother’s brutal murder during an apparent robbery.
In tracing the way this unusual family situation eventually led to O’Dubaine’s murder, House of Suh weaves together court records and family photos with Andrew’s own narration, as well as interviews with his family members, acquaintances of his parents and sister, and even O’Dubaine’s brother, who still can’t forgive. The synthesis is deft to the point that when an explosive revelation drops, late in the doc, we don’t feel manipulated.
In the end, we are confronted with the fact, both comforting and disturbing, that even the most horrific crimes are committed by people with histories and complex inner lives. Whether or not this necessitates forgiveness is the question House of Suh leaves lingering for viewers to contemplate, once it’s had its say.
by Basil Tsiokos
With one week of its 17th edition completed, the 2010 Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival, which continues through this Sunday, has screened about three-quarters of its overall programming. As in previous years, the festival presents close to 200 films over its eleven-day run, consisting of new and retrospective non-fiction work from around the world. The event, which is the largest documentary festival in North America, draws national and international film industry attendees, visiting filmmakers, and the famed Toronto public audience, regularly filling screenings to capacity.
Director of Programming Sean Farnel and his team have once again put together an impressive program, which balances a wide selection of new work with some of the best recent work that has shone at other major film festivals, such as IDFA (highlights screened so far include, among others, “Enemies of the People,” “The Inventions of Dr NakaMats,” “The Peddler”), Sundance (“My Perestroika,” “The Oath,” “Gasland,” “Waste Land,” “A Small Act,” and “12th & Delaware”), SXSW (“Marwencol,” “The People vs George Lucas”), and elsewhere (“The Mirror,” “Into Eternity”).
Iris K Shim’s “The House of Suh” aims to uncover the truth behind the sensationalism of a murder involving a pair of Korean-American siblings that has already been adapted into a made-for-TV film (though with the protagonists made Caucasian!). Andrew Suh pleads guilty to the murder of his sister Catherine’s boyfriend, while Catherine runs from the law, eventually found after an appearance on “America’s Most Wanted.” But Shim finds that there’s much more to the story, relating to immigrant identity, rebellion against authority, and the unsolved brutal murder of the Suhs’ mother. The result is compulsively watchable and surprising.
Posted by Lauren Flanagan (email@example.com)
Directed by newcomer Iris K. Shim, The House of Suh is a feature-length documentary that attempts to tell the troubling true story of siblings Andrew and Catherine Suh, both convicted of the brutal slaying of Catherine’s fiancée, Robert O’Dubaine, in 1993.
Andrew Suh was once a promising and popular student with a bright future ahead of him, but now he’s serving a 100-year prison sentence for committing a heinous crime in the name of family honor. Intelligent and well-spoken, it’s hard to imagine that such a man could ever take part in this type of atrocity. Yet within minutes of the movie’s beginning we learn that he did indeed commit the act. At the age of 19, at the behest of his older sister Catherine, he ambushed O’Dubaine inside a dark garage and fired two bullets, immediately ending the man’s life.
The movie doesn’t waste too much time harping on the details of the murder itself – that’s already been done on “America’s Most Wanted” and a cheesy made-for-TV movie starring Kristy Swanson. Instead it explores the circumstances that led to Andrew’s unraveling.
The House of Suh paints Andrew as a young member of an immigrant family who valued family loyalty above all else, a quality that would turn out to be his greatest fault. Favored by his strict Korean father and fiercely protective of his mother, his life was turned upside down when both of their lives ended early (his father died of cancer and his mother was brutally murdered in an unsolved case). His older sister Catherine (who – to put it extremely mildly – had a difficult relationship with her parents) and her boyfriend Robert O’Dubaine stepped in to become his guardians. But when their relationship went sour Catherine manipulated Andrew into taking extreme action.
The House of Suh weaves together court documents, family photos, interviews with friends and acquaintances of the family, the victim’s brother, and narration from Andrew himself to tell the story of a dysfunctional family situation that went terribly wrong. All of the elements are pulled together very tightly and the result is a well-structured and polished piece of work.
The only thing missing is input from the woman at the center of the horrible story: Catherine Suh (who has never responded to the filmmaker’s requests for an interview). In some ways the exclusion is glaring, but by the same token, director Iris Shim is clear that she wanted the film to be about Andrew’s story. Catherine’s has already been sensationalized through news reports and TV shows, and this film is an opportunity for Andrew to tell his side. It’s definitely a sympathetic portrait, and Iris Shim makes it clear that she and Andrew were friends before this movie got underway.
What’s most interesting about Andrew’s story is that you’ll likely come out with an understanding of his motives. He never really shows remorse, nor does he excuse any of his actions, yet he’s well aware of what he’s done and the irony of the situation. To explain why he was finally convinced to commit the act would be a bit of a spoiler for those who don’t know the case, but to quote Andrew’s take on it, he was someone who “tried to destroy the monster and in turn became that monster.”
The House of Suh is an almost Shakespearean tale that explores the unique pull of the family bond, and the control and manipulation that can exist inside of it.
“The House of Suh”
Logline: “The House of Suh” tells the story of Andrew and his sister Catherine, and how the values, conflicts, and dysfunctions of their Korean immigrant family led to the murder of Robert O’Dubaine. Eloquently narrated by Andrew, the documentary highlights issues of assimilation and the struggle between freedom and responsibility, raising questions about guilt, innocence, and the illusive gray area in-between.
The team: Iris K. Shim, Director/Producer; Gerry Kim, Producer; Damon Hennessey & Daniel Kanes, Cinematographers; Michael Hearst, Composer.
About the film: Iris K. Shim met her subject, Andrew Suh, under unusual circumstances – a friend who had developed a pen-pal relationship with Andrew invited Iris along to keep her company when she visited him in jail for the first time. While his story had received significant media attention, it didn’t do the case justice. Shim says, “[O]ur goal was to strip away the sensationalism and examine the internal conflicts that broke down the Suh household.” She also notes that, as a Korean-American, she could relate on a personal level to Andrew and Catherine’s story, and uses their tragic story to examine larger issues of family, culture, and justice.
Current status: The documentary is currently in post-production, in preparation for its world premiere at Hot Docs next month.
For more information and to support the film: http://kck.st/9Bq6q5. As with all Kickstarter projects, the filmmakers will only receive donated funds if they reach their target goal of $5,000 by the end of the campaign on April 26th. FULL ARTICLE»
World Showcase screens 25 features, including the world preems of Rebecca Haimowitz and Vaishali Sinha’s tale of outsourcing pregnancy, “Made In India,” plus Jonathan Schell and Eric Leibman’s “Sex Magic, Manifesting Maya” and Iris Shim’s “The House of Suh.” International preems include Cameron Yates’ “The Canal Street Madam,” Maghan Eckman’s “The Parking Lot Movie” and Alexandre Philippe’s “The People vs. George Lucas.” FULL ARTICLE»
Fourteen years ago, the media had a field day with this twisted murder case that had “made-for-TV movie” written all over it. Catherine was dubbed the “Black Widow” by some media outlets for planning the murder of her boyfriend so she could collect on his $250,000 life insurance policy. Catherine was supposed to be tried with her brother for the O’Dubaine murder, but she abandoned him two days before their scheduled court date. She was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in absentia.
A few months after an appearance on “America’s Most Wanted,” Catherine was arrested in Hawaii, where she had been living under an alias with a surfer boyfriend in Honolulu. The case became the basis for a television movie called “Bad to the Bone” a year later.
The media seemed equally fascinated by Andrew, who appeared to stay loyal to his sister, refusing to testify against her to help his own case, even after she abandoned him.
Shim wanted to make this documentary in part to humanize the people behind the sensational headlines and to add context to this awful crime.
The young filmmaker observes that the Suh siblings reacted so differently to the pressures they faced as Korean immigrants: Andrew embraced his Korean identity and his role as the loyal son of the family, while Catherine, who wanted to be more “American” and dated interracially, defied her parents’ wishes again and again. That led to a great deal of tension and some explosive fights between Catherine and her father. According to Shim, court transcripts of the trial testimony from one of Catherine’s ex-boyfriends reveal that her father would get so upset at his rebellious daughter that he would beat her while her mother looked on. FULL ARTICLE»