July Issue: New Documentary Sheds Light On Sibling Murder Plot

Yoon Myung and Tai Sook Suh came to America searching for a better life for their children, Andrew and Catherine.

Loyal to a Fault

Filmmaker Iris Shim’s award-winning documentary delves into motivations and manipulations behind a tragic sibling murder plot.

by Suevon Lee

Iris Shim never intended to make a documentary. Her instincts were more inclined towards narrative filmmaking, but when truth turned out to be stranger than fiction, she felt it had to be told.

Thus began a five-year effort to chronicle one isolated act of violence through the prism of an immigrant family’s disjointed, tragedy-filled experience in the United States.

Shim debuted her work, The House of Suh, at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto last May. It has traveled the independent film festival circuit over the past year, receiving much critical and audience acclaim.

The 95-minute feature-length documentary will air in shortened form July 17 on MSNBC through the channel’s documentary film unit and releases on DVD this fall.

An engrossing, penetrating film that incorporates certain cinematic elements through the use of original scoring and animation from hand-drawn sketches, The House of Suh centers around Andrew Suh, a 36-year-old man serving a 100-year prison sentence in Illinois for killing his sister’s boyfriend in 1993.

Filmmaker Iris Shim spent five years on her documentary.

While it is the murder—carried out when Suh was a student on full scholarship at Providence College in Rhode Island—that inspired the film, it’s just one piece of a complex family narrative stitched together through interviews and rare archival footage.

“There’s a whole revelation of why [Suh] actually pulled the trigger,” Shim, 29, said in a phone interview. “It comes down to family loyalty, to what he perceived his duty was as the son of the family. To tell you the specific reason is to give away the ending.”

The feature-length film hovered over completion: Short on funding, Shim and producer Gerry Kim had to rely on donations from Shim’s church and other grassroots contributions to complete filming.

“Trying to raise the money drew out the filmmaking process,” Shim said. “It turned out for the better. It forced us to really marinate on the story for four years, and tell it right.”

Andrew shares a lighter moment with his sister's boyfriend Robert O'Dubaine in 1988

Some challenges were more insurmountable than others.  Catherine Suh, Andrew’s sister, did not respond to filmmakers’ requests for an interview. The absence of her voice in the film when so many others are included is deeply felt.

The House of Suh is more than just the retelling of a simple crime. Andrew was a devoted son who excelled both in academics and in sports, a popular, likeable student body president who was a member of the football team.

“That’s what intrigues people about Andrew: He’s so relatable, yet he did something so horrible,” said Shim. The filmmaker first met Andrew 10 years ago through a church friend who was a pen pal of Andrew’s.

Andrew was only 19 when he committed and confessed to the crime. He waited inside the garage attached to the two-story condo Robert O’Dubaine shared with Catherine and shot the former health club manager, twice, when he returned home.

Police learned it was Catherine who provided her brother with a plane ticket to Chicago and a gun to carry out the killing that would put an end to the abuse she said O’Dubaine inflicted on her.

But that, as the film uncovers, may not have been the only motivation.

Two years later, Andrew was convicted of first-degree murder while Catherine, charged with conspiracy to commit murder and free on bail, fled the day trial was to begin: She was convicted in absentia, and later surrendered to authorities.

She is currently serving life in prison with no chance of parole at a facility in Illinois.

Shim initially wrote a script based on the actual events, but in the end, let the story speak for itself.

“If someone were to make this movie, the audience would think, ‘That would never happen. That sounds like a bad Saturday night movie special,’ ” Shim said from New York, where she is currently a graduate film student at Columbia University.

Shim, who earned a degree in psychology from the University of Illinois, returned to Chicago to work on the documentary after living and working in Los Angeles.

Andrew is serving a 100-year sentence in Illinois.

The House of Suh delves deep into the tumultuous family dynamic that closely involved Andrew and Catherine’s parents, both of whom experienced early deaths after coming to the United States with their two young children to escape a painful past in Korea.

Through interviews with Andrew inside his prison walls, we learn about a fractured household where a rebellious Catherine had a strained, troubled relationship with her father while Andrew, the father’s pride and joy, was a dutiful and cherished son.

“These interviews, which are shot with dramatic close-ups, really paint Andrew as a very intriguing character,” said Gene Huh, a programmer for the San Diego Asian Film Festival, where the film won the Grand Jury Award in October 2010.

“Articulate, intelligent, charismatic and obviously loyal to a fault, it really saddens and confounds you as to how such a young man could have been driven to playing a part in a scheme to commit murder,” Huh said. “This is the type of film that stays with you for a long time after you have seen it.”

Ronald Suh died of cancer in 1985 when Andrew was just 11 and Catherine was 16. Two years later, their mother, Elizabeth, was brutally stabbed at her dry cleaning business. Catherine, then 18, became 13-year-old Andrew’s official legal guardian, while O’Dubaine, then her boyfriend, stepped in as a surrogate guardian.

Catherine, depicted in the film as a willful, defiant individual with a mysterious streak who cared for Andrew like a son, ran a nightclub with O’Dubaine, pouring her energy into investing the proceeds of her mother’s life insurance policy.

In the film, Andrew says his sister has refused to communicate with him since their imprisonment. It’s one more tragic outcome to a family saga that has seen more than its fair share.

Yet, Shim has high hopes for the film that distilled such tragedy. She wants it to screen on college campuses to generate discussion of such topics as mental health and the immigrant experience.

“I feel it’s such a uniquely Asian American story, an immigrant story,” Shim, the younger of two children, said.  “Especially with Koreans, they comment on how they really identify with a lot of the struggles. Beyond that, a lot of the themes center around family and loyalty, and there are certainly universal elements to that.”