‘Free Chol Soo Lee’ Resurrects a Reluctant Asian American Icon

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Black and white image of crowd of reporters around young man
Still from 'Free Chol Soo Lee.' (Courtesy the filmmakers)

As tempting as it is to call Chol Soo Lee a tragic figure, it would be a disservice. No one-word summation can accurately describe his roller-coaster life of shocking spills and stratospheric thrills.

Lee was the central figure in a pivotal chapter of San Francisco history, albeit one that is perhaps not widely remembered outside of the Korean American community. In 1973, a few months shy of his 21st birthday, Lee was arrested for a gang hit at the corner of Pacific and Grant on a Sunday afternoon.

Los Angeles filmmakers Eugene Yi and Julie Ha recount Lee’s terrible saga without histrionics or melodrama in their invaluable debut Free Chol Soo Lee. The documentary, which premiered at Sundance, opens the 40th annual CAAMFest on Thursday, May 12 at the Castro.

Lee was wrongfully convicted of the Chinatown murder on the basis of numerous criminal justice errors that depended, in part, on the racist belief of white eyewitnesses that “all Asians looked alike.”

Black and white image of Korean man speaking
Chol Soo Lee (Courtesy of filmmakers)

“The institutions, the media and law enforcement, the judicial system have continued to remain ignorant and insensitive,” Sacramento-based Korean American journalist K.W. Lee says in the film. “And that’s why I felt it was my calling to make some small dent in that wall of ignorance and insensitivity.”

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K.W. Lee visited Choo Sol Lee in prison, and wrote dozens of articles about him and the flawed case. The reporter sent books to the inmate, and over time became something of a father figure to him. Free Chol Soo Lee introduces us to many voices of conscience, but none are more compelling than K.W. Lee’s.

A friend of Chol Soo Lee, Ranko Yamada, along with other college students (including the late San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi), organized to publicize his case and to raise funds for his defense. Their efforts to free Lee—who ultimately spent a decade in prison, four of those years on Death Row—depended on the cross-generational success of tapping into Korean American churches.

Free Chol Soo Lee, however, is far richer and more nuanced than a mere heroes-and-villains recounting of justice denied, or delayed. (To that end, the filmmakers dispense with the manipulative music and overtones that are endemic in wrongful-imprisonment documentaries on mainstream streaming services and lesser cable networks.)

Black and white image of people holding signs
Protesters in support of Chol Soo Lee. (Courtesy the filmmakers)

The charming but poorly educated Lee, who’d been uprooted from his happy Korean childhood and brought by his damaged mother to the Bay Area, was unprepared to be celebrated as a symbol and spokesperson for Asian American activism and community empowerment. How does a guy who’s spent the last 10 years confined to a cell live up to the expectations of an entire community? And how does a community deal with their cause’s ongoing troubles and demons?

The documentary, which will air on PBS’ Independent Lens later this year, recognizes Lee’s importance to the Korean American community as an example of prejudice and injustice. But the film also remains steadfastly determined to keep the man—and his complicated journey of isolation, torment and frustration—front and center. The excerpts from his posthumously published memoir, voiced with conversational power by Sebastian Yoon, contribute enormously to that effort.

Consequently, only after 90 minutes can we grasp that the title is ironic as well as declamatory: Chol Soo Lee was never free, except in fleeting moments.

What imbues Free Chol Soo Lee with a sense of grace, though, is Lee’s eventual maturity. He moved beyond the victimhood and resentment that understandably afflicted him for stretches in his life, and took responsibility for his mistakes.

As usual, K.W. Lee has the clearest perspective. “It was just by the grace of God that I eluded the fate that fell on him,” he says. “Because there’s a very thin line between him and me. I was lucky. He was not lucky. There are an awful lot of unlucky people. Especially Asians.”

‘Free Chol Soo See’ opens CAAMFest at 6:30pm on Thursday, May 12 at the Castro Theater. Free tickets are available here.