Free Chol Soo Lee (2022) is a documentary directed by Julie Ha and Eugene Yi that traces a young Korean man’s wrongful conviction, the grassroots movement that fought for his freedom, and his circuitous journey to rebuild his life. The 83-minute film stitches interviews, trial recordings, photos, selections from handwritten letters, animated sketches, and dramatized reenactments to explore Lee’s innermost thoughts, Asian-American racism, and corruption in the criminal justice system.
Light jazz music, grainy recordings, and monochromatic pictures transport viewers to San Francisco’s Chinatown in the mid-1900s, where Lee lived. Gang activity ran rampant at the time, and in June of 1973, to the horror of hundreds of witnesses, a gang leader was gunned down on the streets in broad daylight. Despite descriptions of the suspect as being a tall Chinese man, Lee, a petite Korean, was selected out of the lineup and sentenced to life in one of the most violent prisons in California, which was nicknamed “Gladiator School.” Throughout the whole ordeal, the film plays a cheery jazz ballad, “You’re Still a Young Man,” in the background, which seemingly trivializes the serious matter at hand. Viewers learn that this was the song Lee heard on the radio during his ride to prison, not an obtuse artistic decision, which makes it all the more fitting, if only in a sardonic, surreal way
Four years after his initial conviction, a Korean-American investigative reporter K.W. Lee took an interest in the case and started publishing articles that asserted Lee’s innocence, articles that captured the public imagination and galvanized a grassroots movement. Lee’s conviction coincided with the emergence of an “Asian-American” sociopolitical identity in 1968, a term coined by Berkeley activists to inspire cross-cultural solidarity. The story of Chol Soo Lee is also very much a story of the Asian-American community developing a unified voice, turning out en masse to Lee’s trials, and tirelessly raising awareness of his case. At the time, insensitivity towards distinctions between cultural subgroups was prevalent, evidenced by how law enforcement convicted a Korean man for a crime committed by a Chinese man. And to make matters worse, not only were both of the juries at his trials completely white, none of the hundreds of Asian eyewitnesses to the murder were asked to testify in court, reflecting a broader pattern of systemic invalidation and invisibilization of the Asian-American experience.
The film introduces Lee as the “lone Korean in Chinatown,” and throughout the documentary, even in the height of public support, he is never able to fully shake off his gnawing loneliness. As a teen, he was brought to the U.S., stripped from the Korean culture he grew up in, and beaten by his mother. He tried to fit in and always had a smile on his face as if to hide the fact that he never felt at home, but he wasn’t always able to hide his frustration. At 17, in his first brush with the heartlessness of American institutions, he was labeled as a mentally ill troublemaker at school, a foreshadowing of his eventual entanglement with a criminal justice system more concerned with meting out punishment than uncovering the truth.
During the last few years of his prison life and in the years following, he gained a sort of celebrity status, receiving letters from supporters around the world and being bombarded by journalists lining up to interview him. Yet, despite the outpouring of support, he still felt profoundly alone and unable to share his darker feelings, worried that doing so would undermine his supporters’ faith in him as a worthy cause to rally behind. But it is this vulnerability that Lee tucks away from the public eye that draws K.W. Lee to his case. Being the only Korean mainstream investigator, K.W. saw a part of himself in Chol Soo, acknowledging that “there’s a very thin line between him and me.” The eloquence of K.W.’s writing and the surprisingly mundane nature of some of the handwritten exchanges between Chol Soo and K.W. illuminate the humanity that is so easily buried in the bureaucracy of the unjust justice system, contributing a rawness to the film that is missing from the reserved approach to narrative delivery. Many members of the “Free Chol Soo Lee” movement viscerally felt the injustice of his predicament and empathized with him, which spurred them to join the movement to overturn his conviction. In capturing the groundswell of public support, the film illustrates the power of empathy to challenge biased, dispassionate institutions, even against unfavorable odds.
It is easy to think of Lee as a hero–several interviewees commented on his physical attractiveness, innate friendliness, and endearing mannerisms, and as the “Free Chol Soo Lee” movement grew, he became more than a man caught in the crosshairs of a corrupt justice system; he became a symbol for Asian-American liberation. Lee cautiously embraced his new identity as an icon, grateful that his years in prison served a greater purpose, yet he maintains that he’s “not a hero, just a human.” The film is acutely aware of the distinction between Lee, the person and Lee, the icon. It also goes the extra mile to humanize Lee and offer him the grace that the justice system never did. It shows the real Lee hanging on to his last shreds of humanity, bearing witness to the unimaginable horrors of one of California’s most violent prisons, sitting in a prison cell waiting desperately to receive letters from the outside world, and getting fired from a job for not being able to wake up in time. It rejects the simple explanation that Lee’s unruly outbursts in grade school were manifestations of mental instability, as the counselor decreed, but rather, it seeks a more nuanced explanation, one that posits that his behavior stemmed from a craving to be seen, heard, and understood. It portrays his violent prison altercation, which resulted in the death of another inmate, as an act of self-defense. Through this additional context, the film shows the viewers that his actions were, if not justifiable, at least understandable.
However, the latter half of the film is no longer forgiving towards Lee, who veers away from the “square” life after years of working to reintegrate into free society. The increasing coldness of the film toward a man once heralded as an icon of the Asian-American movement reflects the attitude of several of the interviewees, many of whom had an unspoken expectation that Lee would use his newfound freedom to address the anti-Asian racism and unjust criminal procedures that led to his initial conviction. The end of the film shows a recording of his speaking engagement at UC Davis, and there’s a subtle emphasis on how this was his first public speaking event, as if insinuating that he should have started much earlier. Sam Rong, in an interview during the 25th Annual Asian American Showcase, aptly points out the double meaning of the documentary’s title. Not only is the film about the journey to free Lee from his wrongful conviction, but it is also about Lee’s struggle to free his mind from the psychological trauma of prison. Yet, is it reasonable to expect anyone to free their mind any more than they can be expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? It would have been interesting to see the film shine a brighter light on the unrealistic expectations placed on ex-convicts to seamlessly reintegrate into society and the need for a strong support system for these individuals.
Lee maintains that he’s not an angel, but neither is he the devil. The decisions he made, even the ones that led him into trouble, don’t make him any less worthy of the outpouring of support he received. Rather, they humanize him, and the film highlights the complexities that come with seeing someone fully. In contrast to the humdrum of the first half of the film, the ending is subdued, almost anticlimactic, but it leaves viewers with thought-provoking questions. Is the psychological trauma inflicted in prisons ethical? How many other “Chol Soo Lee” cases are out there, and how can we ensure that no more innocent lives are ravaged by the nation’s flawed justice system?