House of Suh (Iris Shim, 2010). Much like John Kastner’s masterful crime documentary Life With Murder, Iris Shim’s House of Suh looks into the eyes of a young murderer and finds an evolving mystery yet to be solved. Both nonfiction films unfold like great thrillers, revealing key information slowly and deliberately at crucial parts of the story. But each consistently considers the layers of human trauma under investigation, exploring the hidden evil lurking just behind the memories and reflections of various talking heads. The title of the film refers to Andrew and his sister Catherine Suh, first generation Korean American siblings who were both convicted of planning and executing the murder of Catherine’s boyfriend Robert O’Dubaine in Chicago on September 25, 1993. Shim begins the film with a brilliantly precise family tree of all parties comprised of intricate animated etchings—connecting these characters on a superficial level only to reveal later on how fragile those links are in truth. Interviews with Andrew (now serving a 100-year sentence in federal prison), other Suh family members, O’Dubaine’s brother Kevin Koran, and various lawyers from each side make up the core analysis of the film, and Shim’s calculated layering of perspectives allows this seemingly open and closed case to grow more complex and insidious. “My identity is the one Catherine developed for me,” Andrew states late in the film, confounding the audience’s perception of his guilt even in the face of obvious misconduct. Despite all the procedural jargon and psychological analysis, House of Suh has a dark neo-noir heart pumping deception, betrayal, blackmail, and manipulation through the narrative with sly precision and unflinching honesty. It’s a devastating example of the American dream hollowed out by the rot of tradition and expectation. Hilariously, the devastating true story was notoriously remade into an all-Anglo television movie, as if the crime itself was okay to represent but the fact that the perpetrators were Asian was off limits.
Tibet in Song (Ngawang Choephel, 2009). More necessary than engaging, Ngawang Choephel’s Tibet in Song seeks to preserve traditional Tibetan folk songs and dance currently fading from memory after five decades of Chinese rule. According to Choephel and many Tibetan musicians, the native music represents the “manifestation of Tibet,” the written history of its values and codes, and the desire to subvert Chinese oppression in order to immortalize the medium is one of the film’s great pleasures. Tibet in Song is told mostly through old DV footage taken by Choephel in 1995, when he returned to his native Tibet to film and document local performers. After two weeks, Choephel was arrested by the Chinese as a spy and imprisoned for five years, becoming a human symbol for the free Tibet movement in the early 2000s. But his Tibet in Song is more ethnomusicology than activism, a love letter to his country of origin rather than a piece-de-resistance against Chinese authoritarianism. Through very simple and static setups, the filmmaker lets the haunting music and lyrics relate the countless years of Tibetan suffering without overt commentary. Choephel also shows the pervasive shift in cultural taste underway, as younger Tibetans favor Chinese pop music over the songs representing their musical heritage. Tibet in Song undertakes the reasoning and ramifications of this generational gap, attempting to bridge the divide by contextualizing this ancient music in a modern day setting. During its most inspired moments, Tibet in Song becomes an artist’s last stand against foreign rhetoric, propaganda, and fear, an aged songbook charting the still thriving heart of Tibet’s artistic soul.
The San Diego Asian Film Festival runs from October 21 to 28. For more information, click here.