'Free Chol Soo Lee' Review: An Unflinching Portrait Of The Trauma Inflicted On An Innocent Man [Sundance]

In 1973, at the age of 23, Korean immigrant Chol Soo Lee was arrested. An outsider within San Francisco’s Chinatown, Lee was charged with first-degree murder after being accused of shooting a Chinese gang member in the back at point-blank range. Though he maintained his innocence, Lee was convicted of the crime and received a life sentence. Complicating things for Lee was the fact that he was imprisoned in one of California’s most dangerous and notoriously violent facilities. As a result of the racial tensions and factionalism in that prison, Lee defended himself against a member of the Aryan brotherhood, killing him and ending up on death row. But this is merely the beginning of his complicated story. 

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The unfortunate circumstances surrounding Chol Soo Lee’s incarceration, his life in prison, and the movement to free him are the expansive subjects of the sprawling new documentary, “Free Chol Soo Lee.” Directed by Julie Ha and Eugene Yi and produced by Su Kim (“Hale County This Morning,” “This Evening”) and Jean Tsien (“76 Days”), the doc premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week and was just acquired for U.S. distribution by MUBI. The movie is stunningly relevant, given the wave of anti-Asian hate movements sweeping the nation in the wake of COVID-19. While the film is ostensibly about Lee’s incarceration and struggles to get out of jail, it is also about the 1970s grassroots movement that formed in California to free him. Overshadowed mainly in the wake of the Civil Rights Era, The Gay Rights Movement, the Student Movement, the American Indian Movement, and American Farm Workers Revolt, the efforts to free Lee from imprisonment was likewise as important a moment in American history — albeit a movement that coalesced around a flawed hero.

As “Free Chol Soo Lee” reveals, cycles of crime and poverty are deeply intertwined, and Lee turns out to be a victim of overlapping difficulties and generational trauma; from the legacy of the Korean war, where his mother was a victim of sexual assault, to the cycle of abuse in his childhood, to his being an outsider in both English and Chinese communities. These factors led Lee to life on the streets, where he committed petty crimes and ran with the wrong crowd in his teenage years. By the time he was in his early twenties, he had fallen through the cracks of multiple systems, leaving him vulnerable to the justice system – the one which ultimately absorbs souls that the system has utterly failed. In this way, the movie belongs in the same category as other vital social justice documentaries such as “The Central Park Five,” “The Thin Blue Line,” “Making a Murderer,” “The 13th,” and a litany of other titles demonstrating how many wrongly accused people, and ethnic minorities, in particular, end up being chewed up by the system, or falsely imprisoned by the carceral state. Like the Central Park Five case, Lee was in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time. He is misidentified by white witnesses, the shooter was ultimately of a different race than Lee, but his criminal record for petty crime made him an easy target for police, and the inherent racism of the system all but ensured that, like the Five, Lee would inevitably be incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. 

While one part of the story is about Lee’s imprisonment, the other half involves the grassroots campaign to prove Lee’s innocence. Using interviews with the movement’s chief players, the movie demonstrates how Lee’s case came to the attention of K.W. Lee, a Korean investigative reporter at a Los Angeles newspaper, to social justice students at Berkeley University, to local churches, and finally expanding outward to include pan-Asian populations of California. The Free Chol Soo Lee movement slowly crested to a wave of activism, raising enough money to hire elite civil rights lawyers and investigators – eventually getting Lee acquitted of all charges and finally gaining his freedom. The story is also about the lifelong friendship between Chol Soo Lee and K.W. Lee and the bond that came from K.W. Lee’s advocacy of the prisoner’s cause.

What “Free Chol Soo Lee” adds to this genre is in its demonstration of the aftereffects of Lee’s imprisonment. By the time Lee is freed, he becomes a sad, flawed man permanently damaged by the prison system. Although he became a spokesperson and figurehead for the movement, eventually Lee buckled under the weight and turned to addiction and petty crime to cope with the immense pressure. As we learned throughout the movie, however, the damage to Lee occurred far earlier. And the trauma was permanent. 

Given that the filmmakers do not have access to earlier documents from Lee’s life, the movie is slightly uneven. This is to say that the film takes a while to get past stock images of prison while recycling the few pictures of Lee from his early life. Once his legal case begins, the filmmakers have more material to work with, including archival excerpts from Lee’s prison diaries, correspondence, newspaper stories about his case, a song written about his imprisonment (“The Ballad of Chol Soo Lee” which belongs in the canon of protest songs which include Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane”) and ultimately footage of the large gatherings of Asian-Americans protesting his imprisonment, attending court proceedings, and cheering the victory of his acquittal. 

What “Free Chol Soo Lee” lacks in terms of earlier material, it more than compensates for in revealing this underseen historical movement. The unity of California’s Korean population, their rallying around Chol Soo Lee as a figurehead, and their ability to reach across racial lines and recruit Japanese and Chinese allies is as important a political movement as any other in the era. Given the gathering storm of anti-Asian hate movements, solely viewing these gathered, unified crowds is a profound set of images in our own era. Directors Ha and Yi’s unflinching portrait of Lee is also admirable, as the movie shows the overall effects of a system indifferent to people who fall through its cracks. By staying with Lee and his story, from his early years in Korea, to his later years in America as an injured ex-convict, the documentary shows how the damage to Lee occurred, both as a death row inmate and a reluctant figurehead for the movement that coalesced around him. [B+]

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