“Free Chol Soo Lee” traces the complicated story of a victim of wrongful conviction who became a leading figure for Asian American and prisoners’ rights activists in the 1970s and beyond. Julie Ha and Eugene Yi’s film benefits from extensive archival material, as well as current input from survivor interviewees. Even so, it’s a story ultimately more sad than inspiring, as Lee’s case epitomizes the odds against even an exonerated to successfully adjust to civilian life after debilitating years in “the system.” With its focus on a fairly recent but little-remembered chapter of American history and the surrounding community activism, this engaging documentary seems a natural fit for PBS and equivalent broadcast media.
Lee was born in Seoul in 1952, his mother moved to the United States alone soon after, after being ostracized by her family for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. (It is suggested she was raped.) Fourteen years later, she returned to retrieve him, snatching the boy from a happy childhood in an uncle’s home and sending him to San Francisco’s Chinatown. , while she worked several times. Chol struggled to learn English, his isolation increased by still being “the only Korean” in schools and social groups dominated by Chinese émigrés.
This led to trouble, including teenage stays in juvenile hall and a mental institution. In 1973 he was, in his own words, “just a young street punk” about to turn 21, hanging out in pool halls frequented by gangs and the like. Employed as a barker outside a North Beach strip club, he foolishly asked to borrow a manager’s sidearm, having never had one before. This weapon was found to have been used in the execution-style murder of a nearby gang member, and with three witnesses soon identifying him as the culprit, an incredulous Lee was quickly convicted and sentenced to life. life imprisonment.
But these witnesses were, it eventually emerged, Caucasian tourists to whom “all Asians looked alike”. Little effort was made to collect testimonies from the many local bystanders also present during the shooting. Lee’s friends weren’t the only ones who believed he had been the victim of a railroad, possibly because rising gang violence in Chinatown had prompted City Hall to press a SFPD not too sensitive to race. Calls for a new trial have intensified, especially among young Korean-American activists and general social justice activists. He was fired further by the involvement of investigative journalist Kyung Won Lee and, ultimately, flamboyant civil rights lawyer Tony Serra.
The relatively high profile of this cause is confirmed by extensive vintage video footage, including material shot at the Deuel vocational facility, where Chol was incarcerated. Handsome and charismatic, he seems insensitive to his environment. Yet that was not the case, as an alleged contract made on his life (for crossing racial lines in the highly segregated state prison) led him to kill a fellow Aryan Nation-affiliated inmate in self-defense. . It resulted in a second murder conviction, even as demands mounted for his first to be deported. However, after a decade behind bars – much spent on death row – he was released.
This big win would soon turn bittersweet, for reasons detailed in “Free Chol Soo Lee’s” later. Having to re-assimilate into a society in which he had never found a firm footing, Lee was faced with celebrity status and high expectations on the one hand, while having few marketable skills or coping mechanisms on the one hand. somewhere else. Succumbing first to drug addiction, then to gang alliances (for the first time, despite previous charges), he was badly burned in an arson he had been hired to start.
Contrite and in great pain, he died three years before the publication in 2017 of a memoir from prison entitled “Freedom without justice”. Despite his media profile, he had never been fully comfortable as a public speaker. An earlier indignity was the 1989 release of “True Believer,” a heavily fictionalized Hollywood feature that used the case as a pretext for a James Woods vehicle, making star Tony Serra in all but name.
Several key players in this story are no longer with us, including student activist turned SF public defender (and occasional documentary filmmaker) Jeff Adachi, to whom the film is dedicated. Still, there is valuable insight from many of the remaining allies, underscoring the focal point that Lee’s case became for Korean-Americans within the larger Asian-American political movements of the time. We also see footage of related protests, various re-enactments undertaken to determine what really happened to 1973 murder victim Yip Yee Tak, and brief animation of old prison clips illustrating what Lee called “the living hell of the California prison system. His own words (adapted from “Freedom Without Justice”) are read in voiceover by Sebastian Yoon, himself an ex-con turned prisoner advocate.
It’s a well-crafted undertaking that leaves its human subject somewhat enigmatic, though we sympathize enough to feel deeply disappointed that his tumultuous life never arrived at a place of safety or peace. The sense of unfulfilled potential is poignantly accentuated by the use of the soundtrack to “You’re Still a Young Man,” a 1972 minor hit for the Bay Area band Tower of Power that Lee heard on the radio then. that he was being transported to a state prison.