Free Chol Soo Lee is, at its core, a sensitive portrait of a man brutalized by an inhuman system. The film begins in 1973, when San Francisco police arrested and convicted Chol Soo Lee for the murder of Yip Yee Tak, a local gang leader shot in Chinatown. It was known then, among the largely Chinese community, at least, that Lee, a Korean immigrant, was innocent. But the prosecutor’s unrelenting thirst for a sentence coupled with the anti-Asian racism within the city’s police department left Lee with no real chance. He was sent to prison, where he would spend the next decade of his life.
It’s no secret that the United States of America, a carceral state, worships at the altar of its prison system. Recent numbers from Prison Policy paint a bleak picture: The country imprisons nearly 2.3 million people in roughly 7,000 facilities, ranging from federal prisons and juvenile corrections facilities to local jails and immigration detention centers. Not only does the U.S. have the highest incarceration rate in the world, but every state also imprisons more people than most other democratic countries. The effects of this are staggering, and the system’s burden reverberates beyond those it imprisons.
Free Chol Soo Lee
Steady and sensitive.
Free Chol Soo Lee vibrates with this broader understanding of incarceration. Directors Julie Ha and Eugene Yi piece together a compact story about Lee’s life and the role his case played in galvanizing generations of Asian Americans. In 1977, four years into Lee’s sentence, an enterprising Korean investigative reporter came across his case. K.W. Lee saw that the circumstances that befell the young Korean American were failures of the state; he was drawn to the story and published a two-part investigation in The Sacramento Union, which brought unprecedented attention to the case. University students took up his cause and eventually joined forces with community elders via local churches. Generations of Korean Americans and, more broadly, the Asian American community in California, came together in support of Lee. They advocated for a retrial, which, after much persistence, was granted in 1982.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this capacious documentary, which adeptly interweaves archival footage with interviews with Lee’s supporters and friends, is the filmmakers’ precise, unwavering focus on constructing a complex portrait of Lee, who died in 2014. The film opens with a court interview of its subject — affable, striking, handsome. He speaks with inspiring clarity about his case. One wonders if, in another life, he could have been a movie star.
Ha and Yi supplement this intimate footage with interviews from Lee’s longtime friend Ranko Yamada, a young Japanese woman who befriended Lee before his arrest, and a scripted voiceover (read by Sebastian Yoon) composed of his words and speeches as well as excerpts adapted from Lee’s posthumously published memoir, Freedom without Justice: The Prison Memoirs of Chol Soo Lee. Together, these bits build a loving depiction of a lonely and often misunderstood man.
Lee was born in 1952, during the Korean War, in Seoul, South Korea. He spent his early years with his aunt and uncle before joining his mother, who had emigrated to the U.S. earlier, in 1964. Life was difficult for 12-year-old Lee, whose American story would be marked by an acute sense of solitude and misunderstanding. He struggled with English and, without access to any Korean interpreters (his school was made up of mostly Chinese students), could not navigate the educational system for support. A tantrum, driven by an inability to communicate, landed him in a psychiatric facility with a diagnosis as an adolescent schizophrenic. This initiated a constricting cycle, with Lee going from institution to institution — from the facility to juvenile detention to foster care and back again.
Marked by the state and without any support, Lee spent his young adult years doing odd jobs. He became friends with Ranko by chance, frequenting the pearl store her sister ran in Chinatown. When Tak was murdered, Lee was not even at the scene of the crime, but the police department failed to follow up with any of his alibi witnesses. And after determining that the bullets fired at Tak matched a gun Lee had (this ballistics report was later considered invalid), they did not care. This was followed by a rushed and sloppy trial before Lee was sent to prison.
The two narrative threads of Free Chol Soo Lee converge after Lee’s newspaper investigation brings a community together. Its here that Ha and Yi consider the impact the case had on Lee, whose life up until then had been lived in relative anonymity. They pull poignant passages from his memoir, where he speaks of thankfulness and guilt in the same breath. On the one hand, Lee took comfort and found solace in the hundreds of community members advocating for him outside of his cell; on the other hand, the pressure to perform gratitude and graciousness, to hide himself away, began to mount and became untenable.
Free Chol Soo Lee follows Lee’s life up until his recent death. The documentary’s third act, which traces Lee’s eventual exoneration and challenges reentering society, is particularly powerful. It’s here that you can feel the full force of the carceral system on Lee’s psyche. It nurtured his isolation and fed internal demons he could not quiet. He struggled to maintain a job, eventually became a drug addict and almost died in a botched arson job (for which he was arrested and served probation).
In the film’s final moments, Ha and Yi narrow their scope, focusing exclusively on Lee, who lived out his last decades doing odd jobs, writing his book and speaking to students in the Bay Area about the importance of building community. There is an understated calm about him in those later videos — a quiet dignity I could not help but feel moved by.