The duo Julie Ha – Eugene Yi presented themselves at Sundance with a documentary film about another man who is neither guilty nor guilty of murder and has spent a good part of his life in prison. However, “Free Chol Soo Lee” is at the same time a story about injustice, racism, how time spent behind bars affects a person, but also about the unexpected fame that Lee gained by becoming a kind of icon of the fight for the rights and recognition of the Korean community in America. Lee ended up in prison after he was summarily convicted of a murder in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1973. There was a gang fight there, and this petty criminal and street person was playing with a gun in his apartment the day before, which accidentally went off, and the police had to intervene. Although witnesses during the proceedings described as the executor a guy physically completely different from the then 21-year-old Lee and a guy who was ethnically Chinese, he was sentenced to life imprisonment anyway.
As it goes, time passed and more and more people became interested in his case, new evidence and new witnesses appeared and it became more and more certain that Lee could not have done it, but during his stay in prison, he was accused of a new murder. And it was a new complete shock, especially since until then we get the impression that he is a calm, lonely, non-violent and withdrawn guy, and even though he claimed that he killed a neo-Nazi from the Aryan brotherhood who attacked him in self-defense, he will still be sentenced to death punishment. And the story becomes more and more incredible because the Korean community in California will unite and move to get Lee out of prison, and besides this documentary being a story about the tragic fate of one man, it is also a story about systemic racism.
Let’s just think of most of the Hollywood movies we’ve seen that have Koreans in them. We usually see them as some store owners that a black man with a gun walks into to rob them, and the fact that Lee was nobody and nothing certainly contributed to his being convicted so easily and quickly. It is a moving and emotional story because we will see how the life and fate of this man developed, who is the narrator himself, that is, segments from his memoirs are read by someone else. It’s a film that captures the spirit of the times very well, and along with numerous archival footage, we have interviews with witnesses of the time, and it’s a story about a man who felt like he didn’t belong anywhere. Unlike most similar films and documentaries, “Free Chol Soo Lee” does not end with his release and release from prison, but has a kind of third act, which is perhaps the most tragic and shocking.