- Movie Rating -

Free Chol Soo Lee (2022)

| August 25, 2022

Ten years ago, when news hit that Rodney King had died of an accidental drowning in Rialto California, I remember one of the local talk show hosts in my home of Birmingham, Alabama questioning why King never became more of a community leader.  Why did he not take his fame and bolster it into something positive?  That’s a good question, but to ask it is to overlook the individual and his experience.  Some people come from backgrounds of such trial and struggle and weariness and pain that such thinking is not part of their nature.

Such is the the story of a man wrongly convicted of a crime, and years later, released by grassroots efforts by the Asian-American community and then returned to civilian life only to return to the only life that he really knew.  The cause, begun by the tenacity of a local journalist, ballooned into a cause to which San Francisco’s Asian population gathered together to overturn an unjust and broken system that saw them as clustered, racially inferior and rarely as individuals.  Lee was the cause for the downtrodden in the 1970s.  San Francisco’s Asian community rallied around him to get him a new trial, but we must ask, what of the individual?  What of the man and the circumstances surrounding the injustice?

Free Chol Soo Lee is one of the saddest documentaries that I have ever seen, not by being depressing, but in reminding us that there are people in the world whose fate is bound in a series of unfortunate events.  Some people just live a sad, sad life.  In this case, Chol Soo Lee, a Korean immigrant born into poverty, the son of a woman who was raped, brought to America when his mother married a U.S. citizen and then raised by an aunt and uncle.  He had a difficult life.  He was declared schizophrenic by the public school system and attempted suicide while being held in a juvenile detention center.  By the time he became of age, his entire experience had been that of institutions.  At that point, he had no social, economic or mental tools to be able to make anything productive out of his life.

In June of 1973, when he was 20-years-old, things just got worse.  Living in a crime-ridden section of Northern Chinatown, the Ping Yuen Housing Projects, a youth advisor named Yip Yee Tak was murdered at a crowded intersection and Lee was arrested for the crime despite several pieces of circumstantial evidence that proved conclusively that he could not have done it.  He was railroaded to prison by easily dismissible evidence and racially separated whites who apparently couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell one Asian man from another – those in the Asian community were not about to rat on one of their own.  Lee was sentenced to life at San Quentin, surrounded by the worst gangs in the country, leading to the killing of a member of the Aryan brotherhood in self-defense.  For this, he landed on death row.

The movement to free Chol Soo Lee was begun by investigative journalist K.W. Lee whose articles for the Sacramento Union began the grassroots movement that would eventually free Lee from prison.  The publicity surrounding the case was aided by an Asian community that saw themselves in Lee, those who felt themselves under the gun of a cruel and indifferent justice system.  For the, Lee was easy to sell.  His face embossed on posters all over the community showed a handsome man with a disarming smile who could have been anyone’s brother or son or boyfriend or cousin or nephew or best friend.  His face became a perfect marketing tool.

What I love about Free Chol Soo Lee is that the story doesn’t end with his victory.  It continues, and shows us the difficulties that Lee had in returning to society.  Once freed, he did not become a civic leader or a role model.  Like Rodney King, he returned to the life that he knew, that he was conditioned to accept.  What is so special about this movie is that it doesn’t reign Lee in as any kind of heroic figure.  He was a man who only knew misery and pain, whose life was a struggle no matter what he did.  It remembers that this was an individual who didn’t deserve the injustice that was thrust upon him, but that doesn’t mean that his life was any better afterwards.

[available in select theaters]

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2022) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary