A chilling true-crime story of manipulation and murder is chronicled in “The House of Suh.” Iris K. Shim’s first feature documentary highlights the role of fierce, abused loyalties within a Midwestern Korean-immigrant family whose case achieved national notoriety in the early 1990s. Sold to MSNBC Films for broadcast later this year (in a much shorter version), it’s a tube natural.
In 1993, Robert O’Dubaine was shot dead in the garage of the suburban Chicago home he shared with fiancee and health-club business partner Catherine Suh. Within days, Suh was charged with conspiracy to commit murder, and her 19-year-old younger brother, Andrew, with the actual deed.
Shim sees the roots of this initially baffling crime in the Suhs’ early home life. Their father had been a military bigwig in Korea, but the family’s fortunes were working-class modest after they moved to the U.S. — notably, after an eldest son took a fatal fall from a Seoul roof. A traditional emphasis on the importance of a male heir was so strong in the elder Suh that he threatened his wife (then in her early 40s) with divorce if she didn’t produce a second son. This led to conflict from an early age with middle child Catherine, violent fights often breaking out between domineering father and resentful daughter.
But Dad died of cancer as Catherine was approaching legal adulthood. Not long afterward, her mother was horribly killed during an ostensible workplace robbery — a case that remains officially unsolved. Catherine became 13-year-old Andrew’s legal guardian, and she and boyfriend O’Dubaine his surrogate parents. This unusual setup appeared to work pretty well — certainly, Andrew flourished as a football player and the student body president at a prestigious high school. But the couple began experiencing strain, and when Andrew returned from his first year at an East Coast college, Catherine convinced him not only that O’Dubaine had murdered their mother six years earlier, but that the only viable solution was for the boy to kill her fiance.
The story was a sensation, showcased on “America’s Most Wanted” (which was how Catherine got caught, being recognized after she’d fled trial to live under pseudonyms) and dramatized in a cheesy TV movie (“Bad to the Bone”) that notably whitewashed the participants’ ethnicity. The portrait that emerged was of a viciously manipulative daughter and sister who had cold-bloodedly orchestrated possibly two deaths for financial gain, destroying her “golden” sibling’s life en route.
Whether that version is precisely, or just partly, true remains unclear in Shin’s more nuanced exploration, whose primary commentators are the now 34-year-old Andrew — serving a 100-year prison term — and O’Dubaine’s adoring brother, Kevin Koron. Various friends, lawyers and extended family members also chip in. The missing element is Catherine, who refused to be interviewed and indeed has refused all contact with Andrew since their arrests. There’s also a wide gap between perceptions of O’Dubaine as a lovable jack of all trades on one hand and a ne’er-do-well shored up by Catherine’s ambitions on the other.
Resulting ambiguities don’t hurt a docu that plays out like a lurid yet intricate puzzle, in which deep-dyed family loyalties are twisted this way and that, yet remain powerful, at least for the hapless Andrew. He says he still loves the sister who caused his life incarceration, and who remains incommunicado in her own lockup 25 miles away. The one stylistic fillip in the straightforward, deftly edited package is the use of simple, courtroom-drawing-style animation.