‘Free Chol Soo Lee’ – The Hollywood Reporter
Free Chol Soo Lee At its core is a sensitive portrait of a man brutalized by an inhumane system. The film begins in 1973, when San Francisco police arrest and sentence Chol Soo Lee for the murder of Yip Yee Tak, a local gang leader who was shot in Chinatown. It later became known that at least in the Chinese community it was largely Lee, a Korean immigrant, who was innocent. But the prosecutor’s unrelenting thirst for conviction coupled with anti-Asian racism in the city’s police department left Lee no real chance. He was sent to prison, where he would spend the next decade of his life.
It is no secret that the United States of America, a carnal nation, worships at the altar of its prison system. Recent numbers from Prison Policy paint a bleak picture: The country holds nearly 2.3 million people in about 7,000 facilities, from federal prisons and juvenile correctional facilities to local prisons and immigration detention centers. Not only does the United States have the highest incarceration rate in the world, but each state incarcerates more people than most other democratic countries. The implications of this are staggering, and the system’s burden far outweighs the burdens it bears.
Free Chol Soo Lee
Stable and sensitive.
Free Chol Soo Lee vibrate with this broader understanding of incarceration. Directors Julie Ha and Eugene Yi came together to tell a brief story about Lee’s life and the role his case played in inspiring generations of Asian Americans. In 1977, four years after Lee served his sentence, a daring South Korean investigative reporter found his case. KW Lee saw that the circumstances of young Korean Americans were the failure of the state; He was hooked on the story and published a two part investigation in Sacramento union, which brought unprecedented attention to the case. College students took over his career and eventually joined forces with community elders through local churches. Generations of Korean Americans, and the broader Asian American community in California, have come together to support Lee. They advocated a retrial, which, after much persistence, was approved in 1982.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this content documentary, which skillfully interweaves archival footage with interviews with Lee’s supporters and friends, is its precise, patient focus. the filmmakers’ intention to construct an intricate portrait of Lee, who passed away in 2014. The film opens with a court of interview about its subject matter – affable, striking, handsome. He speaks with inspiring clarity about his case. One wonders if, in another life, he might be a movie star.
Ha and Yi complement this intimate shot with interviews from Lee’s longtime friend Ranko Yamada, a young Japanese woman who befriended Lee before his arrest, and scripted voice acting. (read by Sebastian Yoon) includes his words and speech as well as excerpts adapted from Lee’s memoirs published after the posthumous, Freedom Without Justice: Chol Soo Lee’s Prison Memoirs. Together, these passages build a loving description of a lonely and often misunderstood man.
Lee was born in 1952, during the Korean War, in Seoul, South Korea. He spent the early years of his life with his aunt and uncle before with his mother, who had previously immigrated to the US, in 1964. Life was tough for 12-year-old Lee, whose story the story is about. America will be marked by feelings of loneliness and misunderstanding. He struggles with English and, without any Korean interpreters (his school is mostly Chinese students), can’t navigate the education system for support. A tantrum, due to his inability to communicate, landed him in a psychiatric facility with a diagnosis of juvenile schizophrenia. This started a cycle of tightening, with Lee going from one institution to another – from facility to juvenile detention to foster care and back again.
Marked by the state and without any support, Lee spent his younger years working odd jobs. He happens to befriend Ranko, frequenting the pearl shop her sister runs in Chinatown. When Tak was murdered, Lee wasn’t even at the crime scene, but the police department failed to track down any of his alibi witnesses. And after it was determined that the bullets fired at Tak matched a gun that Lee had (the track report was later deemed invalid), they didn’t care. There was then a rushed and negligent trial before Lee was sent to prison.
Two narrative themes of Free Chol Soo Lee converged after Lee’s newspaper investigation brought a community together. Here, Ha and Yi examine the impact of the case on Lee, whose lives until then have been relatively anonymous. They take poignant passages from his memoir, where he talks about gratitude and guilt in the same breath. On the one hand, Lee comforts and finds solace in the hundreds of community members who are campaigning for him outside his cell; on the other hand, the pressure to exercise gratitude and gratitude, to conceal oneself, begins to mount and becomes unbearable.
Free Chol Soo Lee followed Lee’s life until his recent death. The documentary’s third act, which traces Lee’s final pardon and the challenges facing a recovering society, is particularly powerful. Here, you can feel the full power of the carceral system on Lee’s psyche. It feeds his isolation and feeds on inner demons he cannot silence. He struggled to keep a job, eventually became a drug addict and nearly died in a job arson (for which he was arrested and put on probation).
In the film’s final moments, Ha and Yi narrow their scope, focusing entirely on Lee, who has spent his last decades doing odd jobs, writing books, and speaking to the public. Bay Area students about the importance of building community. There’s a soft calmness about him in the videos that follow – a quiet dignity that I can’t help but be moved by.