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.