On the surface, Julie Ha and Eugene Yi’s Free Chol Soo Lee tells the story of an infamous wrongful conviction and its long cultural aftermath. If you recognize the name, you know the story. In Chinatown, San Francisco, in 1973, a man named Yip Yee Tak was gunned down on the corner of Pacific and Grant. A .38 Special was later found nearby. It would be linked to the Korean American 21-year-old Chol Soo Lee, who had only days earlier gotten the attention of the SFPD after firing a gun in his hotel room. Lee would be convicted of first-degree murder, and while in prison with a life sentence, he would go on to murder a fellow inmate in self-defense, earning him the death penalty.
All the while, as Free Chol Soo Lee depicts, something extraordinary would happen among the local Korean American community and beyond: a grassroots activist effort to overturn Lee’s conviction, spurred in part by a series of articles in The Sacramento Union by journalist K. W. Lee, and further pushed into the local consciousness by the efforts of a Defense Committee organized on Lee’s behalf, local Korean churches, and the efforts of young attorneys-to-be Ranko Yamada (a friend of Lee’s), the late Jeff Adachi (who would serve as Public Defender of San Francisco from 2003 to 2019), and many others. It was historic, in part, for being a markedly pan-Asian organizing effort for its time. It also helps that their efforts paid off: Chol Soo Lee would win his freedom, after ten years in prison (8 of them spent on death row), in 1983.
Free Chol Soo Lee is not a true crime documentary. If anything, it goes out of its way to avoid becoming one. True, there is an incredible act of injustice at its center, and many trappings of the genre are present, here. A legal and policing system corrupted by, in this case, racism; a race against a death penalty clock; an exoneration; and details too extraordinary to be true, making them the best kind of nonfiction, as in the discovery of a connection between Lee and one of the white witnesses that offers a shockingly strips the state’s case of almost all credibility.
These details aren’t offered up as shocking twists, nailbiters dispensed to a public eager to leer and consume them. They very easily could have been. Yet from the start, the documentary depicts Chol Soo Lee’s imprisonment by way of the damage it does to the man’s spirit. The murder he commits in prison, for example, is quickly reoriented as a startling incidence of the violent, spiritual rot, the heightened self-preservation, that the prison environment enforces, particularly on a man without gang ties whose fellow inmates lived and died by such ties. As soon as this murder comes up, it’s framed as an act of self-defense by both Lee (who explains, by way of an excerpt from his memoir, that he’d been alerted to an imminent threat from a member of the Aryan Brotherhood) and by his supporters (to whom any act of prison violence, by a wrongfully incarcerated man like Lee, should be considered an act of self-defense).
The 1973 shooting is, appropriately, central to the story Free Chol Soo Lee aims to tell, not least for the broader picture it paints of fear and distrust between San Francisco’s overlapping Asian communities, local gangs, and the police. But the truth of that incident is most thoroughly depicted through a close look at Lee’s own history. Free Chol Soo Lee uses excerpts from Lee’s memoirs and recordings of later phone conversations and interviews to construct a first-person tale of utter alienation: abuse from his mother, stints in juvenile detention and a psychiatric facility and, of course, a decade in prison for murder. His is a story that began with a stark, lonely childhood lived in the wake of the Korean War, during which he was left behind by his mother, who married a G.I. and moved stateside, later returning to retrieve her son when the boy was 12. In the years he spent on death row, Lee tells us, there were no executions, only imprisoned men taking their own lives — cruelty, as Lee understands it, that proves the point. He describes death row as lonely. But in fact that loneliness seemed to follow him his entire life, coloring even his experiences as the rare Korean among his Chinese and Japanese friends and peers.
The grassroots campaign raging beyond those prison walls, nurturing a generation of lawyers and activists, matters just as much to this film as the stranger-than-fiction turns in Lee’s conviction and exoneration. Even when we come the closest the movie gets us to a procedural play-by-play of Lee’s retrial, with members of the defense team talking us through their reinvestigation of the 1973 incident and the discoveries that would convince a jury to exonerate their client, that fight is nevertheless couched in the broader battle being waged by Lee’s supporters.
The documentary threads this idea through Lee’s story so thoroughly that his eventual symbolic meaning to the communities rallying in his defense, his ascent into an enduring political symbol, rings out with almost painful irony. Lee’s imprisonment united a community that the man himself, a self-described loner, seems not to have realized he was a part of. And when he’s finally exonerated, and he’s taken on tour, giving talks, trying to live up to the political image that united so many, he is in some ways still alone. Lee, stripped of a decade of his life, flawed in the ways of all humans, restless to catch up on the time lost, cannot live life normally. He owes his life to these broader efforts. He quickly realizes he has to live up to the idea of the Chol Soo Lee whose life was worth saving.
In a way, this is an image problem, a reminder of the gap between the idea of a man and the man himself. It’s a problem that was always already a part of this story; racist stereotypes enforce the same kind of gap, only, of course, more violently. More than once while watching Ha and Yi’s film, I thought back to Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Pena’s Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987), about the murder of a Chinese-American auto engineer by a pair of white auto workers in Detroit — not simply because both documentaries tackle touchstone legal injustices against Asian Americans, but because of the ugly cultural images rearing their heads in each, the background politics that have crucially, palpably shaped peoples’ lives.
I’m thinking of the moment in which Choy and Tajima-Pena cut to an animated auto commercial from the era, where cars from overseas “invade” the United States like a pernicious swarm of darker-hued aliens — images drawing direct corollary to American political rhetoric of the era about Asian imports on the auto market and the sudden collapse of American auto jobs. The images’ intent could not be clear, yet they’re coded, slippery with plausible deniability. Who Killed Vincent Chin? gives us direct testimony from Chinese Americans describing the effect these images had on their everyday lives, particularly in a city like Detroit. Certain details in Free Chol Soo Lee are sculpted into Lee’s story to similar effect — starting with the trio of white witnesses for whom Lee’s face was deemed indistinguishable from any other Asian face, continuing on through the pamphlet of Chinatown mugshots, collated by that SFPD, that featured a crude, Fu Manchu-like drawing on the cover, damning every face therein with implied guilt.
One of the key revelations in Free Chol Soo Lee is the SFPD’s agonizing failure, while investigating the 1973 murder, to interview anyone who wasn’t white. This, despite it being a murder in a busy Chinatown intersection, and despite there being witnesses from the community — including, crucially, a man who was willing to come forward only after moving out of reach of the Chinatown gangs — who knew Lee was innocent. The racial caricature on the cover of that book of mugshots goes some way toward explaining all of the above. Not only the police’s relative lack of effort, but the ease with which the lives in those pictures were rendered indistinguishable to the point of not being human.
There’s an entire history of political representation to confront here, in other words, and even when Free Chol Soo Lee doesn’t seem to be taking this problem on in a direct way, the movie’s self-aware deviations from the norm are pronounced. Ha and Yi know what they’re doing when they allow Free Chol Soo Lee to take a brief detour into True Believer, the 1989 James Woods and Robert Downey, Jr. legal drama inspired by K. W. Lee’s articles about this case — and a good example of how Lee’s trials may have been digested by the public at large. That movie falls into all the genre traps of its time: a ripped-from-the-headlines story with a falsely planted antihero in the form of a white, down-and-out attorney. With quiet rage, Free Chol Soo Lee takes particular issue with a damning late image, in that movie, of a throng of “Asian activists” outside of the prison, a group entirely external to the white attorneys’ efforts, secondary to this story, which is to say, their own story.
Compare this to Ha and Yi’s handling of J. Tony Serra, the famed, eccentric defense attorney on Lee’s legal team who was also the larger-than-life inspiration for True Believer’s ponytailed movie lawyer. We get enough of him to know that his personality alone is worth its own movie (preferably something more rigorous than True Believer), but not enough for us to forget that he is but one part of a broader effort. Serra and others walk us through the procedural argument and evidence used to exonerate Lee, but the movie resists becoming a story of their Herculean efforts, with Lee’s exoneration poised to feel like a triumphant climax, a win for the team. You walk away instead with a sense that the facts were plainly, indisputably on their side — so much so that Lee’s incarceration is only more damning, the errors being so obvious that the attorneys merely had to point them out. The anti-climax is the point.
There’s a version of this movie that would wrap things up here. Lee is set free and allowed to take a plea on the prison murder — the end. But because Ha and Yi’s film is as much a documentary about alienation as it is injustice, community as much as one man, the story continues. The life of Chol Soo Lee, the political symbol, does end here — as the real-life man would tragically learn. The last 30 minutes of Free Chol Soo Lee testify to this point. The talks, the travels, the freedom. The problems with substance abuse and lack of employment. The mistakes made, such as the arson Lee commits later in life, while on hire for a local gang, resulting in third-degree burns to 90 percent of his body that scarred him for life and led to another brush with the law, this time for a crime that no one could argue him out of.
The Chol Soo Lee of this period, his face scarred and almost beyond recognition, seems to retreat from public life. Where the earlier stretch of the documentary supplements voice overs from Lee’s memoirs with images from his life and environs, this last stretch instead uses black screens; he becomes a voice without a face. It doesn’t stay that way. He reemerges eventually, toward the end of his life. He forgoes a transplant to cover his scars; his face, he says, is his face. Just as his fate is his fate — a lesson Ranko Yamada once gave him. “I am not a hero,” Lee says in a speech toward the end of his life, “I’m just a human being.” By then, it almost sounds like an apology.