Film review: Free Chol Soo Lee (2022) by Julie Ha and Eugene Yi

This previous weekend, Julie Ha and Eugene Yi’s debut documentary “Free Chol Soo Lee” premiered as a part of Sundance’s US Documentary Characteristic competitors. This film marks the newest within the line of Korean American productions which have been on the pageant circuit, together with Isaac Lee-Jung’s “Minari” (which had additionally premiered at Sundance) and Justin Chon’s “Blue Bayou”. Not like the opposite two, nevertheless, “Free Chol Soo Lee” is stalwartly grounded in historical past. Sifting by archival footage, reside interviews, and most powerfully, Chol Soo Lee’s personal written phrases, Ha and Yi resurrect this ex-death row’s convict’s eloquence in documentary format on the silver display. 

“Free Chol Soo Lee” is taking part in in Sundance Film Festival. It’s competing on this yr’s US Documentary Characteristic.

Regardless of the title, “Free Chol Soo Lee” shouldn’t be simply in regards to the man in any respect. The documentary as an alternative holds up Chol Soo Lee, a San Francisco road urchin, as an emblem of the Absurd in twentieth century America. In his first few years within the US, he had been locked up in an asylum for not understanding find out how to communicate English; later, he was wrongly convicted of double homicide within the Nineteen Seventies as he “seemed like” the (additionally Asian) shooter. As Chol Soo Lee’s unfair imprisonment got here to mild (apparently, the cops thought he seemed the identical as some other Chinese language man on the road), a surge of Asian American activism swelled forth. From attorneys to church members to college college students in each the US and South Korea, the documentary information the rallying group forces that conspired to set Chol Soo Lee free. His imprisonment, the movie suggests, sparked a pan-Asian motion to acknowledge particular person Asian id.

This already marks a two critical tensions that belabor Asian American discourse immediately. Ha and Yi argue that Chol Soo Lee was wrongfully convicted due to the idea that each one Asians look alike. Isn’t it ridiculous, they counsel, {that a} white police officer ought to assume an Asian man’s ethnicity? Isn’t it preposterous that somebody could possibly be imprisoned for 9 years for such a sleight of hand? And sure, clearly, it’s a insane circumstance. After spending an excellent quarter of the documentary on this level although, one does should surprise about Ha and Yi’s intentions. Why is it so essential to underscore Chol Soo Lee’s Korean id? (Is it, one wonders, the KOFIC funding?) Regardless of all of the clearly pan-Asian assist he obtained, Ha and Yi repeatedly attempt to isolate him as Korean. Chol Soo Lee isn’t just part of Asian America, however he as an alternative particularly an emblem of Korean America.

The second pressure the duo grapple with is extra endemic to Chol Soo Lee’s personal biography: that of the person and the collective. As his mentor, Ok.W. Lee factors out within the movie, Chol Soo Lee was virtually an ideal metonymy for South Korea. Born on Independence Day (August 15) with some of the frequent Korean names on the time, he virtually looks as if a textbook John Smith for his case. Ha and Yi attempt to protect his individuality although, by methodologically pacing the documentary to his biography. On this chapter, Chol Soo Lee is wronged; on this chapter, Chol Soo Lee is about free; on this chapter, Chol Soo Lee falls out of favor and fame. They closely quote his letters too, lots of which reveal his deeply political consciousness. However like the person was subsumed by the motion, his posthumous rendering is likewise swallowed into a bigger historic second. Whereas Sebastian Yoon (one other ex-con, actually) does a beautiful job of re-enacting Chol Soo Lee’s voice, the very act additionally extends Chol Soo Lee’s presence past his personal physique. Yoon, like Chol Soo Lee, has develop into an extension of an even bigger injustices of the California imprisonment system.

With all of this in thoughts, its tunnel imaginative and prescient is each its power and a weak spot. On one hand, the documentary does level out the paradoxes and significance of singling out the person (ethnicity and particular person) amid the gang. Then again, the documentary neglects to say the Black and brown activism on race-based and incarceration points within the Bay Space as nicely. On this battle between the ignorant (white) West and Asian American diaspora, broader concerns about immigration and the racialized Different are eluded to — however finally uncared for.

However a single documentary can’t deal with all the things. For what “Free Chol Soo Lee” does accomplish in 90 minutes, it does so fairly neatly. Aside from a quick animated insert, the movie sticks to a textbook, PBS-like format. It combs by Chol Soo Lee’s letters and televised footage; Ha and Yi interview a plethora of his surviving mates and mentors. It’s informative as it’s well-researched; it’s rigorously edited and humorous in between. It’s simply these tensions – of the person and the various – that makes this deceptively easy documentary a posh watch. In simply round 90 minutes, “Free Chol Soo Lee” brings to mild the deep complexities of narrativizing Asian diaspora.



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