The documentary’s title is a bit deceptive. “Free Chol Soo Lee” isn’t a call to action for Lee. Lee died in 2014. He was 62. Yet this documentary is worth seeing because it is a part of Chinese and Korean American history. It is part of California history. It is part of Asian American history. And, most importantly, it is a call to preserve history before it disappears.
Last year, a documentary, “The Six,” showed how prejudice and time can easily erase history and leave twisted racist lies in the place of the truth. This year, “Free Chol Soo Lee” and “The Exiles,” two documentaries making their world premieres, at Sundance reminded us that unless we act now, some things will be lost forever because the main narrative has been East Coast and Anglo-centric.
Chol Soo Lee was a child of war. His father was an American soldier; his mother, a Korean woman. He was born during the Korean War (1950-1953), in Seoul (15 August 1952) to a single mother. His mother’s family disowned her. Lee immigrated to San Francisco with his mother before he was 10, but she worked long hard hours. Lee could not communicate easily in English with his classmates and teachers. He acted out and ended up living in a series of foster homes. By 1967, he was in the California Youth Authority.
In San Francisco 1973, he was, in his own words, “a young street punk.” He remembered, “I often felt like the lone Korean in Chinatown.” He hung out in bars and pool halls. He was in places frequented by Chinese gangs, but did not belong to one. He ended up in possession of a handgun, borrowed from the manager of the strip club where he worked as a barker. While cleaning it, the gun went off. This lead to an arrest and Lee being identified as a suspect in a murder.
That gun had been used in an execution-style killing of an alleged gang member. Yip Yee Zak, a grocer with possible ties to the War Ching gang, had been shot on the street in broad daylight on 3 June 1973.
The three White witnesses, tourists, identified him in a lineup. A police officer identified Lee as Chinese in an off-hand commentary on the stand. As you might expect, there were a lot of Chinese Americans in Chinatown. There had been locals, East Asian American passersby also on scene, but they were never questioned or called as witnesses. Lee was swiftly convicted and given life in prison by a Sacramento jury (19 June 1974).
The case had been transferred from San Francisco to Sacramento and that turned out to be a lucky break for Lee.
There was another Lee in Sacramento: Kyung Wong Lee. K.W. Lee, like Chol Soo Lee had been born in Korea (Kaesong) in 1928 during Japanese colonialism. After attending Korea University in South Korea, he immigrated to the US to study journalism at West Virginia University. He received master’s degree from the university of Illinois in 1955. Lee had covered the civil rights movement in the South; he had worked in Tennessee and West Virginia. However, when Chol Soo Lee was on trial–this time for the prison murder of a fellow inmate, Morrison Needham, at Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, K.W. Lee was working for The Sacramento Union.
K.W. Lee contacted Chol Soo Lee on 22 November 1977 and went on to produce over 100 articles about Chol Soo Lee during a five-year period (archived at UC Davis). The first article appeared on 29 January 1978. These helped spark activists in the Korean American and Asian American community including a Free Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee. K.W. Lee would go on to found the Koreatown Weekly (1979-1982) and later establish the English Edition to the Korea Times in 1990.
Besides K.W. Lee, Ranko Yamada and Jeff Adachi were on the Free Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee.
Chol Soo Lee would be freed after the two murder cases were settled, accepting a plea bargain on 10 August 1983, but that wasn’t the end of the story.
The New York-born UC Berkely graduate Wesley Strick (“Arachnophobia,” 1990 and “Batman Returns.” 1992) wrote a film inspired by Chol Soo Lee’s case: “True Believer.” And as one might expect, there was whitewashing involved.
In 1989, James Woods portrayed Eddie Dodd, a liberal lawyer with long hair pulled back into a pony-tail who drives a rundown red car convertible. Dodd was once a civil rights lawyer of note, but has descended into defending drug dealers for quick cash. Robert Downey Jr. is a young attorney, Roger Baron, inspired by Dodd’s defense for the Chase Manhattan bombing case. With a wealthy family to bankroll him, Baron has taken an unpaid job as a legal clerk for Dodd. Baron urges Dodd to take the case of Shu Kai Kim (Yūji Okumoto) after Kim’s mother (Misan Kim) comes to the office and pleads, through an interpreter (Ginger Chung).
There is so much wrong with this film. Consider the casting. James Woods hadn’t gone off the rails on Twitter because Twitter didn’t exist in 1989, but the original attorney was Leonard Weinglass (Chicago 7) who was replaced by Tony Serra and Stuart Hanlon in February 1982 when Weinglass withdrew due to poor health. Dodd was supposedly based on Serra, but Serra is part Hispanic (His father was from Mallorca). Dodd is represented as part Jewish. Strick is also reportedly Jewish.
At the time of his arrest, Chol Soo Lee was turning 21, five-feet-two inches tall and 120 pounds. The person who plays the incarcerated Korean American, Shu Kai Kim, Japanese American actor Yūji Okumoto, is six-foot tall.
Then there’s that line of Dodd in front of the jury that is almost laughable knowing Okumoto is Japanese. After a witness states that “All the eyewitnesses picked Kim,” Dodd asks, “But isn’t it true the six other Asian males were of classic Mongoloid type, whereas Shu Kai Kim has the distinctive facial bone structure of a Korean?” (The prosecutor Robert Reynard played by Kurtwood Smith says, “Objection. The witness is not an expert in racial classification.” The judge sustains this objection.)
In the real trial, the actual description discrepancy was the five witnesses described the killer as “a clean-shaven Asian male between five-feet, six inches and five-feet, ten inches tall and weighing between 145 and 160 pounds.” In addition, it was discovered that evidence was suppressed: The second ballistics report found no match and a witness reported to the San Francisco Police Department that Lee was not the perpetrator.
The film “True Believer” takes a different angle on police corruption and goes for a Columbian drug connection.
The other problem with transferring the drama to New York City is that in San Francisco County, Asian Americans (Chinese, Filipino and Japanese) were 13.3 percent of the total population with African Americans at 13.4. By the 1980 Census, Asian Americans (Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese) would be 21.2 percent. Asian and Pacific Islanders would be another 22 percent. Currently, Asian Americans are only 14 percent of the NYC population compared to 24 percent Black or African American. The political power of Asian Americans in San Francisco County is different from NYC.
This film is inspiration via a White person’s point of view, denying both the political power of Asian Americans and the importance of the West Coast in the civil rights movement. And this isn’t just the importance of the West Coast, particularly California, in the civil rights movement for Asian Americans. Serra defended Black Panther Huey Newton in 1970.
Chol Soo Lee in Free Fall from Grace
The documentary “Free Chol Soo Lee” follows Lee’s troubled last years. Upon his release, Chol Soo Lee was a minor celebrity, a leader of a cause, but the cause had ended. He received no monetary compensation for his time in prison and wrongful conviction from the state. He did get a job as a janitor, but having a job didn’t satisfy him. He continued to be on the wrong side of the law.
Chol Soo Lee would be arrested for narcotic offenses and arson. After the arson which left him terribly scarred, he became a public speaker. During his last decade, he remembered the Free Chol Sool Lee movement, saying he was touched by “the purity, the unselfishness, the integrity of people giving to a stranger.”
The “Free Chol Soo Lee” gives voice to Lee by using archival video as well as using his own words in voiceovers by another Asian American who has spent some jail time: Sebastian Yoon. Yoon, who is also Korean American, was one of the inmates featured in Lynn Novick’s “College Behind Bars” documentary about the Bard Prison Initiative which allows inmates to earn college degrees.
First-tune directors Julie Ha and Eugene Yi do a good job, keeping the flow and organizing the chronology while giving us an objective view of the ill-fated Chol Soo Lee. During a panel, Ha stated, “We knew our film would have such import to the Asian American community” and that it was important that this history was known. Yi also noted that Asian American history “are so buried” and these “hidden histories” need to be brought out. There are “a lot of incredible stories that don’t get told.”
Multiculturalism has often been reduced to a dialogue between White versus Black. That’s not how the US was formed and founded. There have been API immigrants in North America from the very start. A Syrian immigrant, Nathan Badeen, died during the American Revolutionary War and an East Indian named Tony was recorded as part of Captain George Menefie’s household in 1624 in Jamestown.
This isn’t how history is taught in school. And even in contemporary times, when a Hollywood movie is inspired by an event, that doesn’t mean the story of Asian Americans and their activism is told. As in the case of “True Believers,” the role of a prominent Asian American journalist and minority activists were totally ignored in order to focus the narrative on two White male protagonists.
Yet the Asian American community was changed by Chol Soo Lee’s case and the movement that supported his exoneration. Adachi would go on to become a public defender and produce and direct films such as the 2006 “The Slanted Screen” and the 2009 “You Don’t Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story” before his death in 2019.
Then when the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin occurred in Detroit and the Detroit chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild dismissed the application of civil rights laws for this case, Asian Americans were ready. The same year that Chol Soo Lee was freed after pleading guilty to the murder of the fellow inmates was the same year that the two men who murdered Vincent Chin, Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz, were allowed to plea bargain down from second-degree murder with a penalty of three years of probation and a penalty of $3000.
Asian Americans formed a group, American Citizens for Justice, and Chinese American journalist Helen Zia (謝漢蘭) and Chinese American lawyer Liza Chan (陳綽薇) were among the prominent leaders in the Asian American response and the successful fight for federal charges.
Because history needs to be preserved and needs to be told, “Free Chol Soo Lee” is an important documentary for the Asian American community. It is an important record of the civil rights movement and California’s place in historic events. At a time when Asian Americans often feel under assault because of their forever foreigner status, “Free Chol Soo Lee” is a story that more people need to hear before we talk about racism in the US.
“Free Chol Soo Lee” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on 21 January 2022.