The late Korean-American immigrant Chol Soo Lee never got the chance to narrate Julie Ha and Eugene Yi’s clear-eyed documentary about his journey through the American justice system, but his voice rings through every moment of “Free Chol Soo Lee.” His own memoirs and letters to key compatriots frame the film, thanks to respectful and compelling narration from another former prisoner of Korean descent, Sebastian Yoon (you can find his story in the Netflix Ken Burns docuseries “College Behind Bars”).
“Respectful and compelling” accurately describe the entire documentary, which follows Lee’s tragic life through many iterations. A tremendous miscarriage of justice led to him being incarcerated in 1973 for a murder he did not commit, and that story alone could support its own film. However, Ha and Yi also delve into Lee’s upbringing (the child of a Korean mother and American father, he spent his his early childhood in Korea with extended family before being brought to America by a seemingly unfit father), the myriad ways systems let him down (from schools to assorted detention facilities), and his desire to find a place in the world as a confused young man.
Archival footage that follows Lee and his adopted hometown of San Francisco, as well as interviews with the many people who took up his cause, provides a full picture of a very complex story. Still, with so much to cover, “Free Chol Soo Lee” often feels like the tip of a much larger iceberg. Ha and Yi instead opt to focus their feature on its more uplifting elements, which makes for an understandable, if somewhat limiting choice for the feature.
It starts with isolation and ends with inclusion. When Lee was 20, someone gunned down a man in the middle of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Dozens (if not hundreds) of people saw the execution-style killing, but victim Yip Yee Tak was a member of the Wah Ching gang; at the time, it was at war with a rival gang. With the murder consigned to “gangland violence,” no one was willing to tell the cops what (or whom) they saw in the scrum. Lee was a well-known and -liked Chinatown resident, but the cops didn’t really care who took the fall (or that the assailant was widely reported to be of Chinese descent; Lee was used to being the only Korean around) and pinned the crime on him.
A year after the murder, Lee received a life sentence in prison. A year later, an appeal failed. Two years after that, Lee killed a fellow inmate (he pled self-defense; as one of the film’s many matter-of-fact talking heads reminds us, “everything” one does in prison is in self-defense). Because of his earlier conviction, Lee was sentenced to the death penalty. But while system after system and hope after hope let Lee down, a movement was stirring to free him.
Very different people gathered behind Lee, including journalist K.W. Lee, friends, activists, lawyers, students, and everyday folks who found their way to the cause, but they often shared key life experiences. Many were of Asian descent; plenty were also immigrants, just like Lee. With Lee’s many supporters desperate to right the tremendous wrongs against him, the Free Chol Soo Lee movement did more than inspire hope for Lee; it inspired hope for an entire Pan-Asian assortment of like-minded people. Yi and Ha’s decision to focus on this portion of Lee’s story gives the documentary a fundamental structure and a resonant emotional value, but it leaves other questions looming.
That Lee was eventually freed isn’t a secret, but Yi and Ha shy from what happened after his exoneration in 1983; he died in 2014 after another brush with the law. A story about justice denied, and the possibility that people can band together to right a wrong, is necessary and vital. If the film gives us hope for anything, it’s that such a miscarriage of justice can never happen again — and if it does, many will be there to answer the call.
MUBI will release “Free Chol Soo Lee” on Friday, August 12 at NYC’s IFC Center, followed by a special one-night-only simulcast screening event hosted in over 180 theaters nationwide on Wednesday, August 17. It will continue to expand in the following weeks.