This is not the first feature film derived from the wrongful conviction of Chol Soo Lee.
Julie Ha and Eugene Yi’s gripping documentary contains dubious footage of James Woods in the 1989 drama True Believer. Names were changed, but Woods is clearly offering a variation on Tony Serra, the colourful lawyer who helped persuade the court that Lee did not murder a Chinese gang leader in 1973. The clip offers some light relief in an often grim saga, but it also serves to comment upon the documentary’s key themes. Members of Lee’s support team confirm they found nothing amusing about True Believer’s relegation of Asian characters to the status of homogenous props. The wider failure of white America to engage with those communities was illustrated starkly in the initial conviction. Lee was identified by three white tourists who didn’t seem able to tell Asians apart. The attacker was described as “Chinese” and it seems the authorities — taking that word as a catch-all for “East Asian” — cared little that Chol Soo Lee turned out to be Korean.
The taut film takes us through the story with great economy. Lee was born in Seoul, son of an unmarried woman, and brought to San Francisco at the age of 12. He seems to have had a rough upbringing. His mother, possibly raped by his father, gave him little affection until drawn into the campaign for his release decades later. Following juvenile detention, he got work in the grubbier corners of the city and, following an accident with a handgun, found his name connected with the murder of gang operative Yip Yee Tak. Making use of shaky ballistics reports, the prosecutors found their man — any man — and clocked up a victory for blind justice.
As with the stories of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, the campaigners and legal burrowers emerge as notable heroes. In those British miscarriages, the support teams had the combined advantage and disadvantage of dealing with high-profile cases. The media may have initially vilified the convicted men, but the cases were (at least initially) to the front of the conversation. Chol Soo Lee was just one of many anonymous prisoners. Later, charged with killing another prisoner, he became one of several hundred on death row. As Lee later explained, that system appeared designed to encourage the condemned to take their own lives.
A few dogged campaigners stuck to their task. The Korean-American journalist KW Lee wrote a lengthy piece on the case for the Sacramento Union that helped get Lee’s dilemma back into minds that mattered. The archive footage confirms that, though now obscure outside the US, the case became a prominent cause célèbre of the day.
Working archival footage in with new interviews — at least one of the team seems to owe her current career to the campaign — Free Chol Soo Lee lays out how the battle helped bring Asian communities together and allowed them a collective voice. Along the way it offers a portrait of a complex man who, though nobody’s idea of a saint, ended up as a forceful representative of his people. Lee falls in and out of trouble, but a speech from his later life shows a man who has learned from his traumas. All involved appear swayed by his undoubted charisma.
Free Chol Soo Lee is among those documentaries that earns the backhanded compliment of feeling shorter than the subject deserves. The directors do good work in conjuring up a remote era and teasing out still extant racial tensions. One does, however, end up yearning to hear a little more about how the legal team went about their work. A good complaint to have.