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 Upside: A polished and very watchable work from a promising young filmmaker.
The Downside: The absence of the most compelling character, Catherine Suh, is very noticeable.
On the Side: In the made-for-TV movie, Bad to the Bone, the main characters were Caucasian. Jeremy London played Andrew. To paraphrase Andrew Suh’s take on it, “they’re okay with me being a murderer but not a Korean.”