"Whatever I was on the outside does not justify to frame a person to put him in prison for a murder he did not commit." These words from Chol Soo Lee seem like a pretty simple truism, one that should be a cornerstone of justice. However, as documentary Free Chol Soo Lee shows, it's wisdom that seems to evade what are supposed to be the mechanisms of that justice.
His case is alarmingly simple. In 1974, Lee was convicted of what press at the time called the execution-style murder of Yip Yee Tak, targeted by his own gang for ripping them off for $10,000. Multiple eyewitnesses ID'd the 21-year-old, and he seemed like the kind of kid who would get into this kind of trouble: A Korean migrant in San Francisco's Chinatown, an outsider in the community, picking up work as a strip joint barker, he was already on probation for theft.
There's supposedly a feel-good end to this story. In 1982, after a public pressure campaign, Lee received a retrial and was found not guilty. But that wasn't the end. Lee's life had been ruined, and by the time of his release he had actual blood on his hands, a killing that only happened because he was in jail. Once Lee was released, his life fell apart – or rather, it continued on the track that it had been set on before he was wrongfully convicted.
Free Chol Soo Lee is only partially the story of an injustice overturned. It's also the story of a movement, as Korean American communities rallied around his cause. But that's where first-time documentarians Julie Ha and Eugene Yi pull back the camera for a broader perspective, not just on Lee's story, but on the marginalization of the Asian community at every level – and indeed the danger of that very term, "Asian community," because him being one of the few Korean people in that neighborhood was a factor in both his conviction and his position as an outsider on the streets where he lived. At the same time, it's how he found a champion in K.W. Lee, the wry, foulmouthed, no-nonsense, award-winning reporter with The Sacramento Union, a Korean American reporter who himself felt like the odd man out.
But Free Chol Soo Lee isn't a simple story of overcoming injustice. Lee was a victim – not the devil but, by his own admission, no angel – and his post-prison life was a spiraling mess, one that left the community that had fought for him feeling completely betrayed.
Ha and Yi do not shy away from the messiness of the case and the complexities of Lee as a man. Through archive footage, contemporary interviews, elegantly framed reenactments in black-and-white still photography, and narration from Lee's own memoirs (recited by Sebastian Yoon, himself incarcerated at age 16 and prematurely written off by society), it deliberately and pointedly asks far more questions than it can ever answer: questions it quietly implores the audience to take home; to debate; to take to the ballot box and the courtroom, to discussions about social services and rehabilitation and policing of minority communities; to take on board next time someone starts mythologizing complicated figures.
And Lee's liberation still leaves one unanswered question, one left open for future filmmakers that probably still plagues his family to this day: Who did kill Yip Yee Tak? Because the injustice of a wrongful conviction is also the injustice of an unsolved murder.
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