"Free Chol Soo Lee" investigates "what went wrong" in 1973's forgotten conviction of an innocent man
In 1973, Korean immigrant Chol Soo Lee was arrested for the murder of a Chinese gang member in San Francisco. He was convicted of the killing and sentence to life in prison, in part because of a false ballistics test. "Whether I'm an angel or a devil, it does not justify framing me for a murder I did not commit," Lee says in "Free Chol Soo Lee," a galvanizing documentary by Julie Ha and Eugene Yi.
Sebastian Yoon speaks Chol Soo Lee's words — culled from letters and his posthumously published memoir, "Freedom Without Justice." The film also features marvelous archive photographs and footage of Lee as well as interview with various folks involved in securing his freedom. Lee's case generated interest from K. W. Lee, an investigative journalist, and he and his articles sparked a grassroots effort from the Korean American community to fight for social justice.
Ha and Yi trace Lee's life, which includes his difficulties as a youth in America, where he struggled to learn English and was sent to juvenile hall as well as a psychiatric hospital. His case became a cause, and when he was freed — that's not a spoiler — he had trouble living up to people's expectations of him. He did drugs, got burned while committing an act of arson, and went back in to jail for a stint and even ended up in witness protection for a spell.
Ha and Yi spoke with Salon about their documentary and its fascinating subject.
Lee was not necessarily a role model. This isn't simply a wrongful imprisonment doc, but a case study about dehumanization, and how others in the community rallied for Lee. What was it about Chol Soo Lee's case that sparked your interest in making a film about it?
Julie Ha: The story beckoned us. We've known about the case for quite some time. We learned about it though K. W. Lee, who I met at 18, and was my journalism mentor for 30 years. When Chol Soo Lee died, I went to his funeral to write an obituary, and while I was there, I was struck by this emotion in the Buddhist Temple. Most people present were activists, and many were expressing an emotion beyond grief — not just mourning for someone they cared for and lost, but almost this regret that they didn't do enough for him. The movement was six years long, and they were dedicated to [freeing] a stranger from death row. I was struck by that depth of compassion and humanity. K.W. Lee was there and clutching a walking stick Chol Soo had carved for him, and he was angry. Why is this story underground after all these years? This is a landmark Asian American social justice movement. It was a case that's been largely forgotten. It is a singular story and hugely consequential. Eugene has one foot in filmmaking and one in journalism and wanted to make a film. That heaviness and that story was with me. I told Eugene, "Let's make this film." This story shouldn't be buried.
You tell the story starting with his arrest, flashback to his youth, and then, in the most poignant section, address Lee's post-incarceration life, which is very troubling. Can you talk about your approach to the material?
Eugene Yi: We always wanted him to be looking back on his life. The film, after the opening, starts with him returning to Bay Area and the community he was separated from for so long because of his time in witness protection. We wanted him to have that journey and framing device, but it was important to have Chol Soo Lee tell his own story. You have to tell what happened after his release. The archival material came from journalists and activists who were involved in the time and hung on to the tapes and posters and materials and interviews. There was a journalist, Sandra Gin, who made a short documentary about the case. It came out in 1983 and ended with his release. But she along with K. W. Lee kept following him and his life and there was more story to tell. Sandra was happy to pass the baton along to us. They were generous and trusting with us. We had to tell this whole story. With the incredible work they had done we wouldn't have a film.
Let's talk about the crime and the trial. What happened in the trials, which are not shown, that resulted in Lee being convicted of a crime he did not commit?
Ha: We had to make some tough choices because it wasn't a true crime film, though it had elements of that. He was identified by three white out-of-town tourists who saw him for mere seconds. When we get to the retrial later in the film, that's when we touch on what went wrong and how he was convicted. The murder in Chinatown was witnessed by dozens of local residents, but not one of them was interviewed by police or testified at his trial. People in Chinatown knew who the real killer was, and it was a Chinese American who fit the physical description and was part of the Chinatown gang. We wanted to get to the conviction and that injustice to get into the story.
What is interesting to me too, what I would hear about this case from K.W. Lee – he would emphasize it wasn't that hard to figure out what went wrong. He would look at court records alone and could not believe the injustice that happened and how Chol Soo could have been convicted. There is a line in the film where the arresting officer points at Chol Soo Lee, that Chinese man, and his own defense lawyer doesn't correct that for the record and say he is Korean. It's unbelievable, but that's what happened.
Did the police, who assumed Lee was guilty, ever apologize, or were they tried for their wrongdoing?
Ha: They did not ever apologize. Eugene and I always wanted to talk to the D.A.s and the police who were involved. One day, I cold called Frank Falzon, and he was very forthcoming and said, "In my over two decades as a detective at the San Francisco Police Department, that is the one case that when I meet my maker I wanted to know if he did it or not. Because I have serious doubts all these years later." I found that really compelling. For so many years, he stood by the belief that Chol Soo was guilty of that crime. It ate away at Chol Soo that he never got an admission from the police or the D.A. that they were wrong. He lived with that feeling of injustice and it really did affect him. I told Falzon, if I am asked as I talk about the film is it OK if share this information? and I told him it would mean a lot to Chol Soo Lee that this admission would come out, and he agreed.
Free Chol Soo Lee (Courtesy Unity Archive Project)
What observations do you have about the Korean American community that rallied to his defense and made Chol Soo Lee a symbol of injustice? Why did they connect with him?
Yi: So many of them had had the experience of going through the war and that was still in the lived experience of so many immigrants that were here. Chol Soo was a child of war, he had been through many of the experiences they had. He's a young good-looking guy, and people constantly commented on that too, and he can attract that kind of attention. But it was this opportunity for the Korean American and Korean immigrant community, which was new at the time. The law changed in 1965 with the Hart-Celler Act to allow war immigrants to come and the population was much larger in 1978-'79. What is striking was this chance to form unexpected solidarities with other Asian American groups. The Korean American community was a backbone, and often rooted in church, financially. There were the young Asian American radicals who would be out there as well. They are not two groups that would find natural cause together. You don't assume these people would work together.
Ha: I think it captured the imagination because of the way K.W. Lee wrote his first story [published in the Sacramento Union]. It was so humanizing. It was a two-part series and the second part dealt with the holes and judicial bias in the investigation, but the first story made you feel Chol Soo Lee could be your son or brother. People who read the story could identify with Chol Soo Lee as child from the Korean War separated from his birth mom and coming to this country with big dreams and finding an incredibly inhospitable environment for immigrants. And a place that was quick to put him in that school-to-prison pipeline. This sets the stage for him for him to be someone you consider a street criminal and have a life on the margins. That story really spoke to the Korean American community. As K.W. says is the film, "There is a thin line between him and me." You can see there is a thin line between he and us and that's why so many Korean American embraced him.
I thought some of Lee's remarks about prison and its codes about reputation, about disrespect turning into violence, and about showing no fear were very interesting. What thoughts do you have about his life behind bars, and his subsequent return to jail after he was freed? What observations do you have about how he processed prison?
Ha: We wanted to flesh out the lasting damage that incarceration did to him and that kind of dehumanization. We were fortunate to have his prison memoirs that were published posthumously, so we could use that material in interviews and the speeches. Our narrator, Sebastian Yoon, was also an important script collaborator with us. He emphasized that it wasn't just prison violence Chol Soo Lee was facing, but depression, loneliness, isolation, and expectations of wanting to put a happy face on for his supporters and not bring them down. Sebastian helped us capture that emotion, that internal pain and trauma he experienced. He felt an obligation to make sure Chol Soo's voice is represented and that someone stands up for him, and he can be understood and not be judged for his failures, and that they might show him some empathy and understanding.
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The tragedy of the film suggests it was Lee's lack of education that informed his misspent youth. His post-incarceration period was fraught with gangs and drugs, and he even went back to jail. Was Lee doomed even if he hadn't been wrongfully imprisoned?
Ha: There is an archival interview with Ranko Yamada that is not in our film, but what she says is, "If that injustice had not happened to him when it did, who knows what his life could have been?" That robbed him of even that chance of something better. He was robbed of that because of that racism and injustice. There were things working against Chol Soo Lee, and it was as if the 10 years wrongful imprisonment weren't enough to haunt him. If you go back to his childhood and circumstances around his birth, you see the depth of suffering and pain he had to overcome in his life just to be, live, and endure. There were so many factors working against him. What I find inspiring is that Chol Soo kept getting back up. If that injustice had not have happened, he definitely had that fighting spirit as challenges came his way. We'll never know.