If it’s accurate to suggest that the chief business of most mainstream narrative movies is to provide happy endings and that documentaries own the license to make an audience agitated, worried or depressed, then the documentary Free Chol Soo Lee is the saddest new release of the season, or maybe of the year.
The smartly assembled American production—co-directed by Julie Ha and seasoned film editor Eugene Yi—tells the true story of Korean immigrant Chol Soo Lee, and how his already-frustrating life unraveled further after he was wrongfully convicted for a killing in San Francisco’s Chinatown. As we examine the details of Lee’s case, its combination of poverty, social inequality, official indifference, casual racism and plain-old bad luck creates a whirlpool of misfortune that draws us in irresistibly.
When he arrived in San Francisco in 1964, young Lee was already acquainted with misfortune. In South Korea he had been the poor son of a mother who left him behind with relatives when she moved to America. As a Chinatown teenager in the bad old days of youth-gang warfare, Lee was “the lone Korean” in a tough neighborhood, a part-time strip-club barker whose boss gave him a gun to protect himself. One day in the summer of 1973, seated in his single room playing with his new .38 Special, the firearm accidentally went off and sent a bullet through the wall.
As the story unwinds—the first-person voiceover by actor Sebastian Yoon is based on Lee’s own words—that mishap coincided with the fatal shooting of a local gangster in broad daylight on a busy Grant Avenue corner. The shooter got away, and none of the potential witnesses on the crowded street wanted to talk to the police—except for three Caucasian tourists. The SFPD’s notorious “Chinatown Gang Mug Book” came into play, as did a ballistics test that matched the .38 Special slug taken from the victim’s body with the stray bullet from Lee’s handgun. Lee was tried, convicted and sentenced to life. His rap sheet got more complicated in 1977, when he stabbed another inmate to death in the yard at Deuel Vocational Institution.
In many ways, the late Chol Soo Lee—he died in 2014—was the classic outsider. Unwanted in Korea, a fish out of water in Chinatown, constantly at war with the prison gangs—yet just another “they all look alike” crime suspect to San Francisco cops. It was only when Sacramento Union reporter K.W. Lee and Korean community activists took up his cause that Chol Soo Lee was able to connect with people who thought he got a raw deal and wanted to help.
Lee attracted supporters such as future San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi and defense attorneys Leonard Weinglass, Stuart Hanlon and Tony Serra, and was eventually acquitted of his original murder charge in a 1982 retrial. A recording of “The Ballad of Chol Soo Lee” was released, as well as a loosely dramatized Hollywood movie called True Believer (1989), starring James Woods, Robert Downey Jr. and Yuji Okumoto (a Japanese-American actor playing a Korean-American). And yet, ironically, even dedicated volunteers found it difficult to relate to Lee’s longtime lifestyle. He reportedly suffered from an “institutional bias” that kept him from being the role model activists wanted him to be—his most important mission was to survive in prison, a fact he couldn’t explain to his supporters on the outside.
Lee never received an apology from the state of California for the nine years he spent behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. When he was finally freed, the only work he found was as a janitor. One thing led to another, he became a crack addict, fell back into the criminal life and was severely burned in a 1991 arson fire he was hired to set. Free Chol Soo Lee is a compelling, all-too-believable story.
At the Roxie Theater, San Francisco. The filmmakers appear in person Aug. 19, 20 and 21.