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Free Chol Soo Lee
The only Korean in Chinatown
A man is killed on Grant and Pacific in San Francisco. Another man runs east down Pacific Street. Chol Soo Lee is in jail a few days later, charged with the murder.
An interesting start that Free Chol Soo Lee (2022) makes, is that it doesn’t try to convince us that Chol Soo Lee is an angel or even innocent. The opening sequence shows Lee being interviewed, talking about being perceived as a devil almost nonchalantly. With zero context into the rest of his life, we learn that he’s already been on probation. We’re promptly introduced to the crime that 21-year-old Lee is accused of, along with his shockingly unlikely explanation for his actions at the time. (Accidentally firing a gun into the wall.) Unwittingly our biases are being tested out of the gate. What do you make of the first twenty minutes? Guilty or innocent? Did Lee stand a chance against your judgment?
Legendary Bay Area band Tower of Power’s “You’re Still a Young Man” plays over footage of 1970s San Francisco as seen from the Bay Bridge and Chinatown. These views match Lee’s description of what he thought would be the last thing he saw in society as he made the Bay crossing. An interesting coincidence of the song being played while watching footage of the Bay Bridge might resonate for music fans in the album cover of Tower of Power’s “Back to Oakland.”
The film that follows might seem like a standard documentary of a falsely accused person who seeks justice, but you’d be wrong if you assumed that is what you’re getting with Free Chol Soo Lee. The film is narrated by Sebastian Yoo, who reads Lee’s own words when first-hand recording of Lee isn’t available.
We’re introduced to K.W. Lee, the crackpot investigative reporter. What tipped him off that something about Chol Soo Lee’s conviction stank? K.W. Lee says:
I kept reading the court records and things shouted at me. The police officer on the stand to identify Chol Soo Lee as the man he arrested said, “There, that Chinese,” pointing at Chol Soo Lee at the defense table. Calling a Korean a Chinese. Anybody who has a smattering of understanding of Asian culture would find it very unreal.
I found myself rooting for Chol Soo Lee within twenty minutes of the eighty-minute movie when it was revealed that he killed a member of the Aryan Brotherhood while incarcerated for his initial murder. However, you’d be forgiven for thinking, within the first twenty minutes of this film, that you were watching a documentary about a murderer, even if a sympathetic one.
Unlike many movies I watch these days, I was on the edge of my seat watching Free Chol Soo Lee. Unsure of where the story would go next (much like reality), I watched as the film cleverly stretched credulity and the expectations of the viewer by doing something deceptively simple: giving us information in the same linear fashion that it was received by the people living the history it depicts. It’s notable because it highlights our prejudices by embracing them from the outset. Then it pulls the rug out from under us. It’s a movie that leans into the assumptions of contemporary assholes1 before zooming out and giving us greater historical context. When Chol Soo Lee is screaming at prosecutors, we understand his fury.
I was surprised by the ways the film evolved after Lee’s release from prison; most films of this nature would end at what seems like a logical terminus: absolution and freedom. If the first twenty minutes were about our prejudice in the negative, the last twenty minutes were about our prejudice in the affirmative. It’s a masterful turn of the prism. The title of the film takes on a different meaning as we watch Lee struggle within the confines of the Asian community’s expectations of him. It’s a masterful presentation on the film’s part and a wrenching turn on reality’s part.
The movie works because it’s more than a story about a purported wrongful conviction. It’s a story about how a conviction, wrongful or not, and a stay in America’s prison system affects a person. The film understands that the story and tragedy continue after the sentencing and the serving of jail time. Chol Soo Lee’s search for freedom continued long after he left the prison system.
The film is neatly summarized by something Lee says early on in the film: “I was at the psychiatric hall for three months, but they released me when they realized I wasn’t crazy. I just couldn’t speak English.”
Free Chol Soo Lee
Directed by Eugene Yi and Julie Ha
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
We’re running back “September in San Francisco” and featuring, for the second time in Movie Night’s history, films that are primarily set in Baghdad by the Bay. Lately, I’ve been enjoying the audiobook of David Talbot’s “Season of the Witch,” a history of the second half of the century in the foggy city. It’s a fascinating book for any SF fan, but for me, listening to the extended history of Bill Graham’s rise in the city has made me wonder why we haven’t gotten a filmed depiction of his start-up and rise to the top before his tragic demise. The Summer of Love seems to run parallel to the French Revolution, mainly in that they’re both followed by a reign of terror. For me, digging into San Francisco’s rich history via film and books continues to stir my wonder for the city.
In other news, I’ve officially finished half of the films I’ve been meaning to watch from 2022. Maybe I’ll get them finished before 2024…
Like any of us on our worst days; a person who looks at a complex machine (literal or figurative) and assumes they “get it.” I do this all the time.