“The House of Suh” Review – 2010 San Diego Asian Film Festival

In 1993, Catherine Suh conspired to have her younger brother Andrew murder her fiancé, Robert O’Dubaine, in the garage of their Chicago home.  Today, both Suhs are serving life sentences.  This crime received nation-wide attention, and was covered on America’s Most Wanted, Psychic Detectives, and sensationally in many tabloids.  It was dramatized in a made-for-TV movie, “Bad to the Bone” (1997), which transformed all Korean Americans into white Americans and starred Kristy Swanson.

The murder continues to grip Korean American communities in Chicago.  In the latest retelling of Andrew Suh’s story, Iris K. Shim – whose family were members of the church that Andrew once attended – recently directed a 95-minute documentary about him.  This gripping and sympathetic film allows Andrew Suh to tell his side of the story, and further explores the reasons for his actions on that fateful night through interviews with a cousin, friends, O’Dubaine’s brother, his prosecutor, and his pro bono lawyer.  Visually, Shim keeps the film interesting through the excellent use of family photos, press photos, and court documents.

Structured as a mystery (complete with a surprise plot twist near the end), Suh presents himself as a polite, thoughtful and intelligent man who desires above all to cling to his Korean-ness.  For him, this means unquestioningly loving and being loyal to his family.  As an 11-year-old, he cared for his father who was dying of cancer.  After his mother’s murder, Catherine, who was then his guardian, told him to run for high school student body president, and he did.  Then, when Catherine told him to shoot Robert to avenge a family tragedy, he obliged.  Meanwhile, his cousin and friends discuss Andrew’s family background, and explain how the label of “loyal good son” became so important to him.

“The House of Suh” is by no means a one-sided film; Andrew is a complex person, and deserves to be portrayed as one.  I also do not doubt Andrew’s lawyer’s contentions that the prosecution misunderstood Andrew’s motives and that his 100-year sentence is substantially beyond the norm for this type of crime.  That said, I do wonder whether the film’s portrayal is a little too sympathetic.  One problem is that we never hear from Catherine Suh, who is portrayed as such a monster in the film.  This is unavoidable, as she did not cooperate or meet with the filmmakers.  Another problem is that Andrew, who even while admitting the heinous nature of his crime, seems to blame his actions almost exclusively on his heritage, specifically the idea of filial piety.  Is this really a convincing explanation for a murder in modern Korean or American society?

These reservations aside, “The House of Suh” is an accomplished feature debut for Iris Shim.  It is an absorbing and thought-provoking portrait of the tragic Suh family.

“The House of Suh” has been featured in numerous film festivals, and has won the Best Documentary Award from the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival and the Investigation Discovery Award for Excellence in Journalism from the Hamptons International Film Festival.  It will screen at the 2010 San Diego Asian Film Festival on Sat., Oct. 23, at 4:10 p.m. PT, and Tues., Oct. 26, at 7:15 p.m. PT.  It will also screen in Philadelphia on Fri., Oct. 22, at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Note: Meniscus Magazine is a sponsor of the 2010 San Diego Asian Film Festival and the 2010 Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival.