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‘Free Chol Soo Lee’: Film Review | Sundance 2022

Free Chol Soo Lee is, at its core, a aloof portrait of a particular person brutalized by an inhuman contrivance. The movie begins in 1973, when San Francisco police arrested and convicted Chol Soo Lee for the raze of Yip Yee Tak, a native gang chief shot in Chinatown. It used to be identified then,…

‘Free Chol Soo Lee’: Film Review | Sundance 2022

Free Chol Soo Lee is, at its core, a aloof portrait of a particular person brutalized by an inhuman contrivance. The movie begins in 1973, when San Francisco police arrested and convicted Chol Soo Lee for the raze of Yip Yee Tak, a native gang chief shot in Chinatown. It used to be identified then, among the largely Chinese community, on the least, that Lee, a Korean immigrant, used to be harmless. However the prosecutor’s unrelenting thirst for a sentence coupled with the anti-Asian racism within the metropolis’s police department left Lee without a true likelihood. He used to be sent to penal advanced, the set he would utilize the next decade of his lifestyles.

It’s no secret that the United States of The US, a carceral direct, worships on the altar of its penal advanced contrivance. Newest numbers from Jail Policy paint a bleak issue: The country imprisons virtually 2.3 million other folks in roughly 7,000 companies and products, ranging from federal prisons and juvenile corrections companies and products to native jails and immigration detention centers. Not finest does the U.S. dangle the very ideal incarceration fee on the earth, however each and each direct also imprisons more other folks than most completely different democratic countries. The results of this are staggering, and the contrivance’s burden reverberates past those it imprisons.

Free Chol Soo Lee

The Bottom Line

Real and aloof.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary)

Directors: Julie Ha, Eugene Yi


1 hour 23 minutes

Free Chol Soo Lee vibrates with this broader working out of incarceration. Directors Julie Ha and Eugene Yi fragment collectively a compact story about Lee’s lifestyles and the role his case done in galvanizing generations of Asian American citizens. In 1977, four years into Lee’s sentence, an enterprising Korean investigative reporter chanced on his case. Ample.W. Lee saw that the situations that occurred the younger Korean American had been failures of the direct; he used to be drawn to the story and published a two-section investigation in The Sacramento Union, which brought unprecedented consideration to the case. College college students took up his location off and within the raze joined forces with community elders by activity of native church buildings. Generations of Korean American citizens and, more broadly, the Asian American community in California, came collectively in toughen of Lee. They advocated for a retrial, which, after well-known persistence, used to be granted in 1982.

Per chance the most spectacular facet of this capacious documentary, which adeptly interweaves archival pictures with interviews with Lee’s supporters and chums, is the filmmakers’ right, unwavering focal point on constructing a advanced portrait of Lee, who died in 2014. The movie opens with a court interview of its topic — affable, placing, gorgeous. He speaks with spicy readability about his case. One wonders if, in another lifestyles, he may perhaps perhaps also had been a giant title.

Ha and Yi supplement this intimate pictures with interviews from Lee’s longtime pal Ranko Yamada, a younger Jap girl who befriended Lee earlier than his arrest, and a scripted voiceover (read by Sebastian Yoon) tranquil of his phrases and speeches as well to excerpts adapted from Lee’s posthumously published memoir, Freedom without Justice: The Jail Memoirs of Chol Soo Lee. Collectively, these bits get dangle of a loving depiction of a lonely and frequently misunderstood man.

Lee used to be born in 1952, all thru the Korean Battle, in Seoul, South Korea. He spent his early years alongside with his aunt and uncle earlier than joining his mom, who had emigrated to the U.S. earlier, in 1964. Life used to be hard for 12-year-dilapidated Lee, whose American story would be marked by an acute sense of solitude and misunderstanding. He struggled with English and, without get dangle of entry to to any Korean interpreters (his college used to be made up of mostly Chinese college students), may perhaps perhaps also no longer navigate the educational contrivance for toughen. A tantrum, pushed by an inability to keep in touch, landed him in a psychiatric facility with a prognosis as a teen schizophrenic. This initiated a constricting cycle, with Lee going from institution to institution — from the power to juvenile detention to foster care and attend again.

Marked by the direct and without any toughen, Lee spent his younger adult years doing irregular jobs. He modified into chums with Ranko by likelihood, frequenting the pearl retailer her sister ran in Chinatown. When Tak used to be murdered, Lee used to be no longer even on the scene of the crime, however the police department didn’t reveal up with any of his alibi witnesses. And after determining that the bullets fired at Tak matched a gun Lee had (this ballistics document used to be later belief about invalid), they did no longer care. This used to be adopted by a rushed and sloppy trial earlier than Lee used to be sent to penal advanced.

The two yarn threads of Free Chol Soo Lee converge after Lee’s newspaper investigation brings a community collectively. Its here that Ha and Yi clutch into yarn the affect the case had on Lee, whose lifestyles up until then had been lived in relative anonymity. They pull poignant passages from his memoir, the set he speaks of thankfulness and guilt within the identical breath. On the one hand, Lee took comfort and chanced on solace within the hundreds of community participants advocating for him outside of his cell; on the completely different hand, the rigidity to manufacture gratitude and graciousness, to veil himself away, began to mount and modified into untenable.

Free Chol Soo Lee follows Lee’s lifestyles up until his most up-to-date death. The documentary’s third act, which traces Lee’s eventual exoneration and challenges reentering society, is terribly highly efficient. It’s here that it is doubtless you’ll perhaps feel the fat power of the carceral contrivance on Lee’s psyche. It nurtured his isolation and fed internal demons he may perhaps perhaps also no longer silent. He struggled to comprehend a job, within the raze modified into a drug addict and nearly died in a botched arson job (for which he used to be arrested and served probation).

In the movie’s final moments, Ha and Yi slim their scope, focusing exclusively on Lee, who lived out his closing decades doing irregular jobs, writing his book and talking to varsity students within the Bay Home regarding the significance of building community. There is an understated mild about him in those later videos — a silent dignity I may perhaps perhaps also no longer attend however feel moved by.

Chubby credits

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)


Production firms: XTR, Chol Soo Lee Documentary LLC


Directors: Julie Ha, Eugene Yi


Screenwriter: Chol Soo Lee (in maintaining alongside with his phrases spoken and written), Julie Ha (adapted by), Eugene Yi (adapted by), Sebastian Yoon (adapted by)


Producers: Julie Ha, Eugene Yi, Su Kim, Jean Tsien, Sona Jo


Executive producers: Sally Jo Fifer, Stephen Gong, Lois Vossen, Kathryn Everett, Andy Hsieh, Bryn Mooser


Editor: Jean Tsien, ACE, Aldo Velasco


Composer: Gretchen Jude


Gross sales: Submarine Leisure

In English, Korean


1 hour 23 minutes

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