In 1974, Chol Soo Lee, a 21-year-old immigrant from Korea to the US, was sentenced to life in prison, wrongfully convicted for a gang murder in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
“Free Chol Soo Lee,” journalist Julie Ha and Eugene Yi’s first documentary film, explores the complicated, “messy” life of Chol Soo who spends 10 years fighting for his life inside California’s prisons. Through unprecedented social justice advocacy by the Asian American community, Chol Soo’s conviction was overturned and he was set free. The film premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
“He became a symbol of everybody’s experience of racism in America,” Ha told The Korea Herald in an interview in Seoul on Tuesday. She was in Seoul for the film’s opening here on Wednesday.
But once Chol Soo found himself in the new fight to rise to meet the expectations of the people who believed in him, his life unfortunately turned very “messy.” He suffered from a serious drug addiction and was injured when he was hired to commit an arson attack, after getting embroiled with gangs.
Chol Soo passed away in San Francisco in 2014, at the age of 62, from complications due to third-degree burns sustained during the arson attack.
“I’m not a hero, I’m just a human being,” Chol Soo says in the film, during a recorded video on 2007 Los Angeles symposium.
“Back in 1983, when Chol Soo was released from prison, there was no institutional or structural support for the formerly incarcerated as they reentered society. Today, some institutional support exists, though not enough,” director Ha commented, referring to the hardships Chol Soo faced even after his release at age 30, following a decade in prison.
According to Ha, who has spend her two-decade career mostly telling stories about Asian American issues, the film itself tells the type of story in which all of us have to do some self-reflection -- not just about the history of racism and discrimination against minority groups in the US, but in Korean society as well.
“If you look at his life in Korea, his unwed mom got pregnant and was banished by her family,” Ha said. As a result, his mother moved to the US with Chol Soo when he was 12, where she had a hard time raising him as she struggled to make ends meet. “You know, I think Korean society has to take a look at itself. How should it treat single mothers? It turns out she was a victim of rape. She needed support, not to be banished by her family,” Ha said.
The directors said that things similar to what happened to Chol Soo still happen to many members of minority groups. So what kind of message do Ha and Yi want to tell through the film?
“We think there’s just a powerful metaphor that can apply to any society -- where there are people that you might not have much in common with -- to overcome those differences and see what we share,” said director Yi.
Yi added that the communities who fought for Chol Soo overcame their differences.
The directors echoed the view that the audience should have the chance to self-reflect and think about who might be “the Chol Soos” of our society today.
“They could be North Korean defectors or single mothers or immigrants. Maybe the audience can take inspiration from the people who rallied for Chol Soo,” said director Ha.
“Free Chol Soo Lee” opens in local theaters on Oct. 18.