A young Korean American unlucky in life, Chol Soo Lee ignited a movement in the Asian American community nearly five decades ago, when he was racially profiled, wrongfully convicted of murder and sent to prison, where, for a decade, he struggled to cope and survive. Long existing under the radar, his story is now the subject of a documentary opening Friday at the Roxie Theater. Expect to feel stirred by “Free Chol Soo Lee.”
Directors Julie Ha and Eugene Li, making their documentary feature debut, deftly combine the standard ingredients of interviews and archival materials in this history trip, nonfiction legal drama, intimate character profile and social tragedy whose 1970s and ‘80s themes of racial profiling, education system failures and dehumanizing prison experiences feel horribly current.
“The response has been tremendous,” Ha says about the film, which has screened at Sundance and San Francisco’s CAAMFest celebration. “People connected so deeply with Chol Soo,” says Ha, who, along with Yi, spoke to The Examiner about the documentary recently.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1952, Chol Soo Lee, at age 12, moved to San Francisco to join his mother, though he never understood why she brought him to the United States. The sole Korean in Chinatown, he felt isolated and frustrated in school, where instruction was in English, which he didn’t understand. A tantrum led to time spent in psychiatric facilities, foster care and the juvenile justice system.
In 1973, the 20-year-old Lee, who had a felony conviction for grand theft on his record, was arrested and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a Chinatown gang leader. While members of the Chinatown community knew that Lee didn’t commit the crime, police and prosecutors pursued a conviction. An inaccurate ballistics report and incorrect witness testimony, along with a poor performance by Lee’s court-appointed lawyer, helped bring about the guilty verdict.
The situation worsened when, in a prison yard incident, Lee killed a white supremacist inmate in an act he maintained was self-defense. He landed on death row.
Journalism and activism, represented by two terrific nonfiction supporting players, allowed Lee to realize not all was hopeless.
K.W. Lee, the highly regarded print journalist known for his contributions to both mainstream and Asian American reporting, contacted Chol Soo Lee about his situation and wrote about it in the Sacramento Union.
“Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” is how the quotable K.W. Lee has described what print journalism does.
Another observation from the journalist: “There’s a very thin line between him and me — I was lucky, he was not lucky,” K.W. Lee, himself a Korean immigrant, says about Chol Soo Lee.
The newspaper articles moved university students and members of the Asian American community to come together. Among the young activists was Ranko Yamada, whose friendship with Chol Soo Lee helped the latter cope. Yamada worked hard on his case, even becoming an attorney and joining his legal team. “I helped Chol Soo because he had no other source of support,” she says.
A movement and the Free Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee were born, with the mission of getting the young Korean freed.
The group’s efforts resulted in a retrial for Lee, who, with better attorneys this time, was acquitted of the Chinatown murder charge.
In the death-row case, a plea deal led to Lee’s release.
Triumph alternates with tragedy in Lee’s story, however. Spending 10 years in prison made it hard for Lee to thrive in society. Symbolizing a movement was a high-pressure responsibility. Lee feared that he couldn’t meet supporters’ expectations. He lacked adequate education and employment skills. He got hooked on drugs. An arson job left him severely burned. He was sentenced to more time in jail.
Yamada, also interviewed by The Examiner recently, says she wasn’t surprised when Lee lost his way.
“He was alone,” Yamada says. “It’s hard to have a healthy and good life if you don’t have continued support, especially at the beginning of your life.”
Late in his life, Lee, who died in 2014, engaged in redemptive activities. He worked on his memoirs and gave speeches.
The activist movement, meanwhile, had legs: Many members, after Lee’s release, went on to push for Asian American rights in other areas and got in greater touch with their own cultural identity. Some joined the fight for justice for Vincent Chin (the Chinese American who, in 1982, was fatally beaten by two white Detroit men in a racially driven attack).
A particularly moving element of Lee’s story is the continued support Lee received, even when his actions were troublesome. People have said that Lee did more for them than they did for him, Ha says.
“Lee had humanity,” Ha says. “He was resilient. People described him as a fighter. He cared deeply about those who supported him.”
Why did this case that is so significant in Asian American history become an underground story that is absent even from Asian American studies programs?
“Chol Soo was not a perfect individual,” Ha says.
“There’s a gray area,” she adds. “Chol Soo had a felony.” He also had a gun, she adds, referring to the weapon that, in the twisty narrative, plays a part in Lee’s wrongful conviction nightmare.
More people know about Vincent Chin than Chol Soo Lee, the filmmakers note, describing Chin’s story as “cleaner” and easier for the public to process.
Noteworthy is the film’s narration, containing words from writings and speeches by Chol Soo Lee. Sebastian Yoon, a Korean American former prison inmate, provides the voiceover. Ha says that Yoon “deeply connected with Chol Soo. … He felt obligated to stand up with Chol Soo so that people wouldn’t judge him.”
Also noteworthy is a passage about “The Ballad of Chol Soo Lee,” created by some of the activists, with lyrics based on a poem by Jeff Adachi, who later became San Francisco’s public defender. The song has what Ha describes as a “funky flair” and a 1970s vibe.
The activists “put some of their lives into the movement … to help Chol Soo,” says Ha. She says that the film was made to tell people about Lee and the movement he inspired — a powerful story that must not get lost.
Yamada recalls that, along with the fun, “There were disagreements and fighting in our discussions about Chol Soo’s case.”
“But in the end, we came together. And we won!” says Yamada. “It’s the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done.”
IF YOU GO:
“Free Chol Soo Lee”
Where: Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., S.F.
When: Starts Friday, Aug. 19
Contact: (415) 863-1087, www.roxie.com
Note: Filmmakers Julie Ha and Eugene Yi visit the Roxie for Q&As after the 7 p.m. show on Friday, August 19; the 6:40 p.m. show on Saturday, August 20; and the 3:45 p.m. show on Sunday, August 21.
Preview screenings are scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 27 at about a dozen Bay Area theaters. Check local listings for details.