“Free Chol Soo Lee” tells the story of a wrongly convicted man who, after spending nearly a decade in prison, was finally found in his favour.
But it’s not an uplifting movie. As much as it celebrates the acquittal of its subject, a Korean immigrant to California named Chol Soo Lee, this documentary, directed by Julie Ha and Eugene Yi, is about how the fallout from the failure of justice permeated the rest of his life. . It also examines whether the expectations of those who helped him, and his brief moment of celebrity, may have weighed him down. Just because Lee was innocent doesn’t mean he was perfect.
Born in 1952 during the Korean War, Lee was eventually taken to San Francisco by his mother. He lived, according to the story of the film, somewhat aimlessly, and was convicted of a 1973 murder in Chinatown. Continued advocacy by KW Lee, an investigative reporter for The Sacramento Union, and a coalition of activists drew attention to significant flaws in the case. The trial took years, and a separate death penalty case against Chol Soo Lee, for a prison murder, only complicated matters.
“Free Chol Soo Lee” is based on Lee’s own words, read as narration by Sebastian Yoon, and from the memories of his supporters. Archive footage involving KW Lee who said he saw a “very thin line” between himself and the man he was covering is particularly poignant. But “Free Chol Soo Lee” is somewhat dry and, as criminal justice documentaries go, sadly known as straying from Lee’s unique and stark perspective, which details details of his struggles with prison life and depression. In a passage used as a voiceover, he described death row as a system “designed so that the convict… commit suicide before his execution.”
Free Chol Soo Lee
Not judged. In English and Korean, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 23 minutes. In theatres.