Cinema Asian America: Iris Shim and Gerry Kim on ‘The House of Suh’

"The House of Suh."

In 1993, a brutal murder shocked Chicago and the nation – two Korean-American siblings, Andrew and Catherine Suh, were convicted of killing Catherine’s boyfriend, Robert O’Dubaine. What followed was a media frenzy of coverage, from “America’s Most Wanted,” to a made-for-TV re-enactment, but the analysis failed to grasp the complex cultural, gender and familial dynamics which were at the heart of the crime.

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In their gripping and revelatory new documentary, “The House of Suh”, Iris Shim and Gerry Kim offer the untold story of O’Dubaine’s murder, through detailed research and an intimate interview with Andrew Suh himself, now serving a 100-year sentence for the crime. What is revealed is a tragedy rooted in the turbulent dynamics of an immigrant Korean-American family and an incisive look at the darker edges of race and assimilation.

“The House of Suh” makes its On-Demand premiere this month on Cinema Asian America on XFINITY On Demand.

The case of the Suh family received a great deal of attention in the press in the early 90s, and was even covered in television shows like America’s Most Wanted. Why was it important for you to revisit this story and tell it from another perspective?

IKS: I was friends with Andrew Suh since I was 19. During my first year of college, I met him through a mutual friend while he was serving his prison sentence. Andrew and I bonded instantly, and became good penpals, with an occasional visit whenever I could. Over the course of the first few years of our friendship, I made the decision to go into filmmaking, and when I was 23 and thinking of a project to embark on, I realized that Andrew’s story was one that not many people knew. The story was sensationalized in the media, focusing on his sister Catherine as the “femme fatale” who coerced her loyal brother into murder. But the side of the story they didn’t tell was the complicated family history behind the murder, which started well before Andrew’s birth.

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Andrew is serving a 100-year sentence for murder. How did you gain access to him? Did you attempt to contact his sister, Catherine?

IKS: Andrew had been doing some youth outreach in the late 90s while in prison, and through a church youth group in Chicago, my friend heard about him and started to write to him. After about a year, she decided she wanted to meet him in person. But as a young woman, she was too scared to go alone. She asked if I would accompany her and I agreed. It sounds crazy to me now whenever I tell people this story, but I guess when you’re 19, visiting someone in prison doesn’t seem that crazy of a suggestion. We went down to Pontiac Correctional Facility and almost immediately, I was blown away at how smart, funny, and articulate he was.  From that point on, we became good friends. We’ve attempted to contact Catherine multiple times, but in order to gain access to any prisoner, one must first get permission from the actual prisoner.  Catherine hasn’t spoken to anyone for many years, and the last visitor she had (her godmother), Catherine physically attacked.

An interesting side-note about the Suh family is that their story was remade into a made-for-television movie called “Bad To The Bone,” except in this version, the family is cast as white, and not Korean. Part of the film’s intent is to show how central the Suh family’s race, ethnicity, religion and position as immigrants were to what transpired. Can you tell us a bit more about how you chose to deal with these many complicated aspects of their identity?

GK: From the very beginning, Iris and I wanted to construct a film that minimized any sensationalism associated with Catherine and Andrew’s story.  We decided that the best way to do so was to ground the crime thread in a deeply personal, deeply subjective story told by Andrew.  His perspective gave us a better understanding in how difficult it was for his family to assimilate to America, and how these conflicts contributed to the other tragedies that later plagued the Suh household.  These revelations gave us insight to a whole host of other issues, including Andrew’s social identity versus his family identity, filial piety, and the lack of counseling support given to Andrew, especially after the death of both his parents. We tried to assess issues of identity from both the Korean perspective (Andrew’s Korean friends and family) and the American one (neighbors, high school friends, etc.), which in the end, gave us a very complicated story about one family’s immigrant experience.

What are you working on now?

GK:  I’m producing two other documentary projects at the moment, one on migrant Mexican carnival workers and the other on the life and activism of George Takei.  I’m also developing a feature film with Christina Choe, a classmate of mine from Columbia University.

IKS:  I’m currently getting my MFA at Columbia University’s Film Program, so I’m excited to make my shift to narrative filmmaking. I recently directed a narrative short film that wrapped production back in July. However, I would like to continue to make documentaries. Gerry and I have one in development that we hope to get into pre-production as soon as things fully wrap up with “The House of Suh”.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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