Free Chol Soo Lee

Free Chol Soo Lee is a documentary examining the life of Chol Soo Lee, who he was as a person, and then as a symbol which forged the first Asian-American social justice movements. Despite knowing a fair bit about American racially-charged miscarriages of justice, I’d never heard of Chol Soo Lee. Unfortunately history is teeming with examples, and by the time I was a teenager reading about the police murder of Kuanchung Kao in the 90s, it was nearly 15 years after his case ended. But the legal case was not the end of the story, for Chol Soo or the communities that united around his cause.

On an early Sunday evening in 1973, Yip Yee Tak was gunned down in the street in front of dozens of witness in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. The murder weapon was left at the scene, a .38 revolver. The police noted that the night before, a guy had accidentally discharged a .38 revolver into the wall of his hotel room. They looked him up, and sure enough, he was convicted felon, with a history of skirmishes with the law. They put him in a line-up, and three eyewitnesses IDed him as the shooter. Jobs a good un, let’s all go home and get our tea.

Except Chol Soo Lee, the man they arrested, was innocent. The eyewitnesses were white tourists, who had picked a 4-year-old mugshot of him out a book of Chinatown suspects, that the police had drawn a Fu Manchu caricature on the front. No other potential suspects were ever drawn in for a line-up, and one of the witnesses who IDed him as familiar turned out to be a guard who had seen him as a boy in juvenile detention. Neither the witnesses or the cops seemed to realise that far from being a member of a Chinese gang, Chol Soo Lee was Korean.

And also the bullets didn’t match. The one from the hotel wall and the one that killed Yip Yee Tak, they weren’t fired from the same .38. And the prosecution knew the whole time. But Chol Soo was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

4 years after his conviction, an investigative journalist K.W. Lee re-examined his case and started to raise community support for Chol Soo. It was a railroading, he claimed, and pointed to numerous flaws and racist prejudices throughout his arrest and trial. The documentary talks to many community figures who were pivotal to the campaign to free Chol Soo Lee, including friends, activists, lawyers and community leaders. Asian-American defence committees formed all across the country, each raising awareness and funds for his legal case.

Part of this story is about the impact and legacy of those community groups, of that first uprising of the Asian-American antiracism and social justice movement. But part of it is also about the man, Chol Soo Lee.

As he says of himself at the beginning, “I wasn’t an angel, but I also wasn’t the devil either”. Chol Soo was the son of an American soldier and a Korean woman, Puni, right at the end of the Korean War. Born out of wedlock, his mother was disowned by her family, and fled to America with another G.I. He was left to be raised by his aunt and uncle in a country devastated by war, poor and often hungry.

When he was 12, his estranged mother, having gotten herself settled in San Francisco, brought him to the States to live with her. She said she wanted to give him a chance of an education and a better life, but quickly things broke down between them. The profound disconnection in their relationship seemed to be the source of all his demons, and perhaps of hers too. She beat him mercilessly, until he eventually ran away and ended up being raised on the streets.

Hearing him discuss this vital absence, it seemed to tear a hole in him, giving him a loneliness that nothing could console. His whole life he never understood his mother, what drove her, why she beat him, why she abandoned him when he was put on Death Row. There was such a starvation of love between them, and yet, she had brought him to live with her in America, why? It is only when the filmmakers ask a friend of his mother’s, who feels she can finally say now both of them are dead, what Puni revealed to her. Puni was raped. While pregnant with Chol Soo, she had a dream of being pursued by a snake, which bit her, and no matter how much she beat at it, even taking a knife and chopping it to pieces, it would not let her go. Chol Soo never knew. Perhaps if they’d been able to acknowledge this truth, they may have understood each other a little better, maybe even been able to forgive each other a little.

Puni never supported Chol Soo in prison, and was extremely reticent to get involved with his liberation campaign. Quite frankly, she thought he did it, and took some persuading to be convinced he didn’t. When she eventually did get involved, she became very enthusiastic, speaking about his case on telly and turning up at his court appearances. Her anguish seemed palpable, which seems difficult to square with her coldness and abuse towards him. An ungenerous explanation was that she simply liked the limelight, but I think it was more complicated than that. I think she found him easiest to love when he was just the idea of a son, when they were at their furthest apart, and most removed from their domestic reality.

In the years after his case ended, Chol Soo Lee tried to live up to the legend that had been built around him, to prove worthy of the hard work and faith people had put in him. And for a while he was able to keep that up, visiting elders to thank them for their community efforts, touring the country visiting groups of activists who’d worked to free him, and working at a Korean community centre. But bit by bit, the old failings came back. As a man who’d spent all his young adulthood behind bars, he threw himself into excess upon his release, which led eventually to a coke addiction and a return to criminality. He was keenly aware of what a disappointment he was.

In the 90s, he accidentally set himself on fire while committing arson, burning his face, hands, and whole body. In footage taken later in his life, he is in visible pain. And I kept thinking about him and his mum. How they’d both had symbolic roles, mother and icon of a movement, how they’d been best at fulfilling those roles when there was the widest divide between themselves and those who had expectations of them. And how they’d both tried to fulfil those roles, and how they’d both failed. How they’d turned the pain they felt inside outwards, hurting those closest to them.

But that’s not all to Chol Soo Lee’s story, and the message of the film is to fight. Even if people are far from perfect, in a society that is far from perfect, for either to get better, you must fight. And there is no such thing as a defeat if you keep fighting.

A fascinating portrait of a man and a movement.

Good Luck To You, Leo Grande

I loved this!

Watching this, I kept thinking of the time Emma Thompson was on the My Dad Wrote A Porno podcast, how she spoke passionately about sex positive representation, and that the best way to demystify and destigmatise a taboo subject was a good old dose of laughter. Good Luck To You, Leo Grande embodies all of that, with the gusto and humour Emma brings to the subject.

Emma stars as Nancy Stokes, a pseudonym used by a retired widow when she hires a dashing young sex worker. Nancy is a woman who always did the right thing. She was one of the good girls. She did what she was told. Don’t run around with the boys, don’t have sex before marriage, and certainly don’t have affairs. And in reward for her constant obedience, she had 30 years of orgasmless, passionless sex. It was never upon her initiation or need. And after a lifetime of suppressing lust, she was so divorced from her own wants she wouldn’t have known where to begin to articulate them.

I’d love to say this is a generational thing, and it is to some extent, but far too often this still exists in our culture. The old chestnut – that women’s sexuality is to be feared and controlled. And importantly the film shows how women are just as important in upholding and transmitting patriarchal values. Nancy spent her career as an RE teacher, catechising young girls in the dangers of their lust and their bodies.

What I like about this film is the ability to show any number of changing dynamics in power and vulnerability from moment to moment. Nancy and Leo, the sex worker, cycle through numerous points of harmony and contention, repression and release. Such interactions are usually presented in a flat binary, with power sitting entirely with the party making the purchase. But in the film, every moment has a complex and layered negotiation of need, vulnerability, control, and loss of control.

What I also loved about the film is that is set almost entirely in one room. Like bottle episodes, almost the entire film is confined to the hotel suite Nancy rents for their visits. The only speaking roles are Nancy and Leo, with the exception of a waitress towards the end of the film (who is also beautifully played). The film rests entirely on the talented performances of Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack. They make an hour and 40 minute film whizz by, in turns gripping and funny and tragic and jubilant, and they do it with just the two of them alone in a room. No special effects, no dragons, no robots, just pure human drama.

Good Luck To You, Leo Grande is so funny, and so poignant, and so fun. Just a great watch!

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Splinters is a documentary about the Rio Tercero explosion, something I was completely ignorant of before watching this film. It is made almost entirely from home movies shot by the filmmaker as a 10-year-old kid.

Natalia Garayalde lived in Rio Tercero with her family, her mum and dad, brother Nicolas, and sisters Caro and Gabi. Her mum was a schoolteacher and her dad was a doctor, and they lived a comfortable and happy suburban life. Rio Tercero was a small town, with a church, school, park, town square, and sports clubs. The major employers were two nearby chemical plants and a munitions factory belonging to the military. Natalia’s home movies speak to the fun and freedom of a 90s childhood in a middle-class home in a safe neighbourhood. Jumping in the backyard pool, playing with their new camcorder, making news reports while hanging upside down from their bunkbeds, so their hair stood straight up. It’s the kind of scenes that make you realise these are your best years, these are what you will look back on as the good old days.

Then on November 3rd 1995, the munitions factory exploded. All the bombs, explosives and shrapnel were thrown high in the air over the town. On videotape is a stranger who has bundled Natalia and her brother into the back of his car, driving them to safety at the outskirts of town. He scoops up a woman franticly running down the street with a baby in her arms, as metal rains down, and dogs run through traffic, seeking cover. The noise is like engulfing thunder and the sky has a black, sooty mushroom cloud. Everywhere people are panicking and the secondary explosions of falling bombs echo around them. From behind me in the cinema, I hear someone faintly whisper, “Fuck.”

The following scenes are surprisingly light, because they are shot by a kid, and are from a child’s perspective. Kids are like plastic, they bounce back from anything. Natalia’s reaction is that of most 10-year-olds witnessing a huge explosion . . . cool! Once it’s clear everyone is safe and sound, in her family at least, all she can think about is how exciting it is to be on the news. Plus, there’s no school, so wahhay! She and her brother tour the town doing their own news reports on the debris, barely able to contain their excitement.

The President even shows up in town. He’s here to quell any potential panic, assuring everyone this has been merely an unfortunate accident. He tells a press conference that the media should act responsibly and inform people of this fact, and not work against the government by spreading unfounded rumours. The chemical plants were not damaged, and there is no possibility of chemical contamination of the shrapnel and debris. Everyone should just go about their lives as normal, and funds would be made available for repairs.

If your bullshit senses are tingling, you’re not the only one. Natalia’s neighbour Omar is blamed for the disaster. Initial investigators’ tests concluded a spark had ignited explosive as a result of his work. At home Omar tried to recreate their experiments to clear his name. Setting up his camcorder, he placed a square of the explosive concerned on a table, then took his grinder and a piece of steel and stood over it raining sparks down upon it, like a fucking boss. He was so certain is was bullshit, he was willing to recreate it in his kitchen with no safety equipment, at not even arm’s length from his face. And sure enough, no amount of sparks caused it to catch fire.

The full story would not come out until decades later, and it was one of corruption, international arms trafficking, and flagrant disregard for human life. Another film might pull back to make the perpetrators and their dealings the centre of the story. But in Splinters, the film remains steadfastly on her family and her hometown. The lies that were told that day to keep everyone sedate had repercussions for everyone in Rio Tercero. Her family, like many others, saw the buried truth sprout dark flowers.

Splinters is such an interesting documentary, forcing the viewer into a state of vulnerability along with the innocent people of the town, completely dependent on outside explanation for why their world has suddenly upended. Right up until almost the end, you only know what Natalia and her family knew, living through it, and at the mercy of media reports for any perspective or protection.

An intensely personal window into the lives of those who are so often are reported only as numbers.

The Sacred Spirit

Cinemaattic are doing their Adrift season, so I went along to see The Sacred Spirit. A deeply strange film, it follows an ordinary family with extraordinary beliefs in UFOs, clairvoyance, and ancient Egyptian mythology.

Watching the film, it reminded me of an article I read on serial killers and abnormal psychology. Why can’t we spot them? the article asked. Because we’re all fucking weird, was the answer. The author wrote the piece from a hotel hosting a furry convention. Even an interest viewed by the majority as strange, has a whole culture in which it is affirmed as normal, where you can disappear into a crowd, be insignificant or even boring.

The spirituality of this film’s family is the same. It’s a minority form of religiosity, and a mix peculiar to this family, but it is by no means any stranger than dominant forms, or society in general. The main character, Jose, is not alone in his belief in extra-terrestrial contact, either in the film or in real life. His parents’ obsession with Egyptology is not unique to them either, as there is no end of kitsch tat mass-manufactured for a market craving it. Jose’s niece Veronica is able to watch any number of YouTube videos on the ancestral astral forms of humans, each promising enlightenment for a price, and each warning to download the video, lest it be removed by those hoping to hide the truth. From both within and without, there is a constant reinforcement of the reality of the magical as part of everyday life.

And that’s what this film’s about, the mystical and the mundane. Everyday life is full of such extraordinary things. For Jose and his family, aliens and psychic powers are a day-to-day reality as much as tables and chairs. Even outwith his family, in the community there is a woman seeking an exorcism of what she believes is her abusive husband’s ghost, a schoolchild talks about the smell of flowers being affirmations from God, and a neighbour constantly harps on about nefarious and clandestine gangs of Eastern Europeans who are spiriting children away to harvest their organs and sell them into sex slavery. And all of this is set in the run up to Easter weekend, when the dominant and normalised religious expression prepares to celebrate the dead returning to life, the manifestation of a God on Earth, on a date based on the position of celestial bodies, by eating bread and drinking wine which a spell has transformed into flesh and blood.

There is a bizarreness with which we watch the family in The Sacred Spirit, but as the film goes on, you find yourself questioning if this is all going to follow the reality of the characters involved. As a viewer, you can see how the conviction your beliefs are reality can make you vulnerable, but within the world of the characters, there are constant reinforcements and confirmations. The feeling of being sucked in transfers from the characters to the viewer at times.

The Sacred Spirit, in many places is very funny, but it almost feels too strange to laugh. Because the whole thing is played absolutely straight, you almost can’t let out your giggles at Jose and his UFO group standing in wee light-up pyramids, waiting to be beamed up. Throughout the film, there is a look at the weirdness of the forms of human spirituality, and while there is humour there, this is no contemptuous mocking. There is a sincere respect for ordinary people wanting to make sense of life and death.

A very strange film, with an edge of darkness bordering the playfully weird and wonderful.

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