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Art-house films: ‘The House of Suh,’ ‘Sins of My Father,’ ‘Con Artist’

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Opening this week on the local specialty film circuit:

‘The House of Suh’ ★★★

Violence curses a Korean-American family in the nuanced documentary “The House of Suh.” Director Iris K. Shim, a Chicago native and UIC psychology major, revisits the murder of Robert O’Dubaine on Sept. 25, 1993.

Prompted by Catherine Suh, 19-year-old Andrew Suh shot his older sister’s boyfriend twice in the head. He wrote a 10-page confession after his arrest. Catherine had told him that O’Dubaine had stabbed their mother 37 times at her Evanston dry-cleaning store back in 1987. Shim interviews people who implicate Catherine in that unsolved slaying, which enriched her with an inheritance. Convicted of conspiracy in the murder of O’Dubaine, Catherine is imprisoned at Dwight Correctional Facility and declined to participate in the film.

Andrew Suh, now at Pontiac Correctional Facility, does appear on camera, along with his cousin, godparents, high school classmates and his victim’s brother. Also appearing are the prosecutor and a pro bono lawyer trying to reduce Andrew’s initial 100-year sentence.

Unlike other true-crime reports, “The House of Suh” never sensationalizes. Shim underscores her tact by using a bit of making-of footage of an “America’s Most Wanted” crew re-enacting the shooting, and a few clips of “Bad to the Bone,” a dramatization cast with non-Koreans and broadcast by ABC-TV. At the 2007 Chicago Underground Film Festival, she screened “Of Kin and Kind,” her 24-minute version of “The House of Suh.”

Key details reveal a tragic background, without diagnosing a family pathology. Before moving from Korea, the family lost a child. In Chicago, Catherine once clawed her father’s chest, drawing blood. He doused her and himself with gasoline but his lighter did not spark. Even though Andrew pulled the trigger in the death of O’Dubaine, he comes off as the sane sibling tricked by a sick Catherine.

No MPAA rating. Running time: 92 minutes. In English and Korean, with English subtitles. Screening as part of the 16th annual Asian American Showcase at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Shim and her co-producer Gerry Kim will attend screenings.

‘Sins of My Father’ ★★1/2

“I’m nobody,” admits Sebastian Marroquin. “My father is the famous one, for whatever reason.” The documentary “Sins of My Father” makes that reason quite clear: Before Marroquin changed his name and moved to Argentina, he was Juan Pablo Escobar and lived in Colombia. He was 16 years old when his father, a cocaine cartel chief and onetime congressman, was gunned down in 1993.

Director Nicolas Entel persuaded Marroquin and his mother to appear on camera. Aired last fall by HBO, this informative documentary peddles a personal angle on the notorious Pablo Escobar, once credited with once controlling 80 percent of the world’s cocaine market.

Entel’s focus is on Marroquin’s outreach to the grown sons of two Colombian politicians his father killed: Lara Bonilla in 1984 and Luis Carlos Galan in 1989. The hugs of reconciliation smack of Oprah-style healing rites but yield little insight into second-generation guilt or revenge. Unlike the sons of his father’s victims, Marroquin does not follow in the footstep of his late father. His curent career is only identified as “architect and industrial designer.”

Entel finds nothing of interest in Marroquin’s life as an adult, apart from his role as a victim of notoriety. “I was a rich, spoiled brat,” he observes, as he shares home videos and snapshots of a privileged childhood. With or without therapy, he has little insight into his upbringing, let alone its underwriting. For obvious reasons, his infamous father upstages him as the subject of “Sins of My Father.”

No MPAA rating. Running time: 90 minutes. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Screening at 8:45 p.m. Friday and 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Landmark Century as part of the Chicago Latino Film Festival.

‘Con Artist’ ★★

Mark Kostabi is a jerk. He works at it. That’s part of his marketing plan as a painter since the 1980s. Kostabi continues to self-promote in “Con Artist,” a 2009 documentary by Brooklyn filmmaker Michael Sladek, who also set his 2004 drama “Devils Are Dreaming” in the New York art scene.

“I’ve always felt that a lot of modern art is a con, and that the most successful painters are often better salesmen and promoters than they are artists,” said mogul Donald Trump in 1987. Kostabi hooked his brand to that quote, adding, “I am the world’s greatest con artist.”

Unorginality is his signature. Kostabi started by copying Andy Warhol’s art “factory” conceit. He still hires painters to turn out canvases that he signs. He then mocks the suckers who buy his art, rather like Charlie Sheen taunting ticket buyers on his “Torpedo of Truth” tour.

Sladek, who once operated a camera for a public access TV show that Kostabi hosts, depicts the painter as completely shameless. He films Kostabi hitting on a lesbian Estonian makeup artist while she’s covering up his acne scars. The most pathetic scene occurs at Yale University, where students mutely regard Kostabi as a nobody. He perks up, though, when Pope Benedict XVI blesses his 2007 sculpture of Pope John Paul II.

Like the recent “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and “The Art of the Steal,” “Con Artist” is another documentary about the art world that’s more interested in money than art. In his press notes, Sladek claims he depicts a “fall from grace.” Except that Kostabi’s career never ascended to anything more than celebrity. His bad-boy act as the Andy Kaufman of the gallery scene was a bust. Playing a fool in the guise of a performance artist, Kostabi offers one-note satire. Sladek is amused but not moved to offer any insight into art in America.

No MPAA rating. Running time: 84 minutes. Opening Friday at Facets Cinematheque.

Bill Stamets is a free-lance writer and critic.

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