‘Free Chol Soo Lee’ reflects the fractures of justice
To this day, there has been a significant push to have Asian American representation and symbols to make sense of our inclusion. Part of that representation means we need a comprehensive scope of life for Asian Americans–the good and the bad. It becomes easy to equate individuals with the metaphor of inclusion, but how do we address the less obvious harm done to Asian Americans’ minds and spirits in places we are not used to seeing them? In Julie Ha and Eugene Yi’s documentary Free Chol Soo Lee, we are asked to fight for justice and to question it as well.
As a troubled, charismatic, and 21 year-old Korean American man, Chol Soo Lee is arrested on false and discriminatory charges for murdering a man in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He is subsequently sentenced to life in prison that escalates to death row after further murder charges. The documentary spans Chol Soo Lee’s life before, during, and after his pivotal 1970s murder conviction. Through a robust independent coalition of Asian American leaders, the campaign to “Free Chol Soo Lee” builds momentum and culminates in his eventual return to freedom.
The film meticulously pieces together who Chol Soo Lee was beyond his incarceration through a wealth of archival footage, photos, and narration of Chol Soo Lee’s writing by Sebastian Yoon. As an immigrant child from Korea, Chol Soo Lee faced a persistent amount of alienation and isolation as one of the few Koreans in Chinatown. Despite this, he is regarded as well meaning, charming, social and handsome throughout his life. Personal accounts from friends and supporters provide a collective, if imperfect, portrait for a man. Chol Soo Lee feels simultaneously close and very far away.
Chol Soo Lee’s appeals from prison are unheard. He is put on death row for killing another prisoner. As the walls close around him, an emerging wave of Asian American activism hears about his case and ignites massive support. A combination of energy, luck, and solid investigative work from a scrappy defense team eventually lead to Chol Soo Lee’s freedom. However, the outside world proved to be just as destructive for him. Chol Soo Lee’s enormous pain and isolation metastasize after ten desperate years surviving his imprisonment. It becomes extremely difficult for Chol Soo Lee to reintegrate into society as both a symbol and a human being. The pressure to represent the community that fought for him deepened cracks within. Chol Soo Lee constantly struggled with how to tell his story while he was free and this documentary serves to reckon all available aspects of his abundantly tumultuous life. Chol Soo Lee’s reluctant martyrdom is gripping, upsetting, and inspiring all at once.
The degree of Chol Soo Lee’s influence is moving and at times overwhelming. K.W. Lee, the central investigative reporter who spurred Chol Soo Lee’s path to freedom, became a life mentor to him. Ranko Yamada, one of Chol Soo Lee’s closest friends, maintained contact with Chol Soo Lee throughout his incarceration and later became an attorney because of it. A song was written in support of Chol Soo Lee and once free, he was invited all over the world. Without any of his own authorship, Chol Soo Lee’s face, name, and cause became synonymous with Asian America.
K.W. Lee is a stalwart moral conscience of the film. His recollections of Chol Soo Lee’s story and reverence for the responsibility of journalism as “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” are potent today. The acknowledgement that he was simply lucky while Chol Soo Lee was not is sobering–suggesting that we are, to a certain extent, blameless in an unfair world. K.W. Lee is clear about how the California prison system destroyed Chol Soo Lee inside and out.
It’s difficult not to feel something harrowing watching this film. Chol Soo Lee is robbed of so much, from his autonomy to his body to his story. We witness a man turned inside out from a criminal justice system that held someone who was not supposed to be there. And in spite of a victory, Chol Soo Lee is eaten away. What more can we learn from his pain? What would his life have been like if there wasn’t a massive groundswell of support?
In the Asian American documentary canon, Free Chol Soo Lee contributes a compelling foil to Who Killed Vincent Chin? Both were galvanizing social movements for Asian Americans with different outcomes of how racism is facilitated by the state. While Vincent Chin’s murderers were convicted and served no jail time, Chol Soo Lee was found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit and jailed for ten years. ‘Free Chol Soo Lee’ reinforces the destruction that simply living while Asian can entail. It tells us a cautionary tale of what lies past those rare moments of victory. It reminds us how important sustainable rehabilitation and community support are for those that continue to suffer in silence.
America has never been equipped to handle the full complexity and humanity of what Asian America actually is. Righteous activism, unresolved grief, and a basic desire to be human are critical components in Asian American history. Chol Soo Lee is all of that and more, but he was also just one man. There’s a responsibility for each of us to distinguish between metaphors and people. ‘Free Chol Soo Lee’ pushes us toward understanding that responsibility, warts and all. If you can bear that responsibility, ‘Free Chol Soo Lee’ is worth so much of your committed time and attention long after it cuts to black.
Film pages: IMDb
Free Chol Soo Lee was covered as part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.