Official Selection, 2022 Sundance Film Festival
“I was not an angel…. At the same time, I was not the devil.”
When you’re the face of a justice movement, it helps to be an angel. Instead, we have Chol Soo Lee: a short, smiley kid with a rap sheet, the lone Korean in Chinatown. When a Chinese gang member was gunned down in 1973, Chol Soo happened to have accidentally discharged a new gun in a bedroom nowhere near the killing. But that coincidence, along with the negligent testimonies of white tourists for whom all Asians look alike, sent Chol Soo Lee to prison for murder.
The 1970s were also when newly-established Asian American Studies departments were graduating their first classes. Eager students like Jeff Adachi saw in Lee’s case a national rallying cry for racial justice and the creation of a pan-Asian coalition. Led by the reporting of Sacramento Union journalist K.W. Lee, determined defense lawyers like Ranko Yamada, and the expansive power of Korean church networks, the movement for Chol Soo Lee became bigger than the story of one wrongly-convicted man.
But what directors Julie Ha and Eugene Yi do so powerfully in FREE CHOL SOO LEE is to show that the Chol Soo Lee is also more than just a trial. While he immigrated to a nation that plays devilish tricks on Asians, he was not an angel. Through extraordinary archival footage and evidence, recreations of Lee’s own words, and especially the contemporary recollections of Yamada and others, for whom Chol Soo was both an inspiration and a deeply complicated figure, the documentary recounts a history that gets increasingly complex the more we see its central figure as a person rather than just an icon. A soulful and sobering look at justice and redemption, FREE CHOL SOO LEE captures parallel Asian Americas – the idealism of a campus movement, the tragedy of Chinatown gangs – and the man who brought them together.