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!

If you like this…

Zola

Oh my god, I loved Zola!

Taylour Paige stars as Zola, a dancer at the club who meets and falls in friendship with Stefani, a new dancer who seems totally sound when she first meets her. Stefani invites her on a road trip to Florida the next day, along with her boyfriend and her roommate. And pretty early on all the alarm bells start ringing.

It’s basically like a road trip movie set over a weekend, high in comedy and crime capers, with Zola just trying to survive her first 72 hours of friendship with Stefani.

I cannot state more highly how great Taylour Paige and Riley Keough are in this. They make the characters real people, and not just cartoons in this over-the-top story. They play the darks and danger as well as the highs and laughter. And they have this real, believable chemistry, where you can see why you get into a deep pile of shit because you were bowled over by a connection.

I loved Zola’s voice, her storytelling is as much what makes the film enjoyable as anything going on in the screen. She has such a strong sense of herself, she never doubts or gets lost in amongst all the craziness, and her voice reflects that strength and purpose.

The moral of the story is never go to Florida.

The Nest

Within the first 5 minutes of the Nest, I clocked Jude Law’ character as being a lying, manipulative, gaslighting, narcissistic cunt. And the rest of the film is just waiting for that ticking timebomb to explode.

Carrie Coon plays his wife, who knows something is badly wrong but has no words to describe it. He’s clearly smooth-talked his way through so much shit by this point, and bought himself out of trouble with gifts like bribes, and turned on her for being “crazy” whenever she raised a legitimate concern, she really struggles to discern what is in fact being hidden from her, and what direction her impending sense of doom is coming from. She seems like one of those women who don’t even realise they’re in an abusive marriage until he cleans out her bank account, sells her mother’s house, and leaves her with thousands of pounds in debt after faking an illness to extort money from their friends. As the movie begins, she is just cresting the wave of her realisation her confidence in him is misplaced, and their financial situation is likely not all he makes it out to be. As he suggests yet another move, this time to a fancy manor house in England, you sense she has now been through this cycle enough times to see through it, and the tactics he’s been using to keep her compliant or complacent are no longer working.

In fact this whole film is shot more like a horror film. The score is ominous from the outset. The plot is reminiscent of so many horror tropes – happy family moves to gothic mansion and begins to unravel – except there is not supernatural force. It kinda reminds me a little of The Witch, how the family falls apart under misfortune, only in The Nest, there is no external agent causing it, it is self-created in the character of the father.

I can see how someone would not be interested in seeing this movie. After all, incredibly privileged cunts find no happiness in their extravagant lifestyle seems like the least compelling plot ever. Which is why I didn’t enjoy Anna Karenina. And if it weren’t for the fact it is directed by Sean Durkin who did Martha Marcy May Marlene – which was awesome by the way – I wouldn’t have bothered with it. But I dunno, I found it did hold my attention. It managed to have a central villain whose motivation and character made sense and were identifiable without asking you to sympathise with him.

It has this tortured wife character who is much more fleshed out and three-dimensional than the usual stereotypical role, she has agency, the film is all about her growing in confidence and choosing to face what she fears is true, even as she is half losing her mind over it. She is not a passive victim, and she clearly has been invested in the materialistic life that has been provided so far, seeing it as a mark of stability and security, and he has clearly bought her off with gifts in the past because that has been what’s worked. It is only as the avarice has grown to self-destructive proportions that it has come to signify the opposite of that, a lack of safety.

In some ways this is a movie about a haunted house, but the house is haunted by a woman’s unintelligible fears, and the malevolent force is in the secrets her husband is keeping.

Writing With Fire

Writing With Fire follows Meera, Suneeta, and Shyamkali, reporters for Khabar Lahariya, the only newspaper in India run by Dalit women. They navigate a world which devalues them because of their caste, their gender, their perceived lack of formal education, the fact they are rural journalists documenting issues in their own communities. They do so with courage, spirit, strength, and defiant optimism.

This film does a good job of combining the seemingly small stories with these huge, even global, issues. Shyamkali talks about how her husband disagreed with her decision to become a journalist, that he beat her and stole her wages. So she got him lifted for domestic abuse. All across the country, and for generations, if you were a journalist it meant you were a high-caste man, and no one would countenance a woman from the lowest caste as a reporter. It changed because Shyamkali changed it. And when her husband tried to beat her back into her place, believing he could do so with impunity, she changed that to. And when she used her position as a journalist to challenge police indifference on the rape of a village girl, she changed that to, and the rapist was arrested and prosecuted within the week. And when the front-runner for state office spoke to her about his election campaign, expecting deference and only to advertise his candidacy, she changed that too, and challenged him on rape prosecution rates in the state, and what he planned to do to reduce rape and increase convictions. This film shows how the world is changed by women who insist on their own worth, their own rights, their own voice.

Even as they start small, their successes are hugely meaningful. A canal may not seem like much, but its repair makes the difference between a village starving or not. Challenging corruption and indifference by local authorities, to ensure that bribes are not the only way to get anything done, is how they bring democracy to life, one electricity pole, one resurfaced road at a time.

But as things progress, so too do the tides swing back. The film covers the rise of Hindu nationalism, a divisive ethno-religious fascism. The conservatism of the movement means it is not only Islamaphobic, but doubling-down on traditions of caste and gender roles. The surge to power coincides with increased violence, especially towards journalists critical of the ruling party. It’s enough to make you despair, but Meera says, “In this time when these things are happening in the county, if they ask what did you do? Khabar Lahariya made sure the fourth pillar did not fall.”

A great documentary about citizen journalists, those truly dedicated to the responsibility of journalism to safeguard democracy, people who know the high price and the fragility of it.