I was a bit disoriented when the plot of Free Chol Soo Lee shifted only 20 minutes in, as a journalist near-definitively assessed that the eponymous prisoner was innocent of the murder for which he was serving a life sentence. It felt like things were moving too quickly. But the documentary doesn’t abide by the usual rules of true crime. Directors Julie Ha and Eugene Yi are less interested in the meticulous details of law enforcement and the legal process than in the personal and social impacts of institutional racism, and especially incarceration. The sequence of events by which Chol Soo Lee was wrongfully convicted in the mid ’70s is laid out, of course. It’s also full of infuriating details about how San Francisco police and prosecutors railroaded him after settling on him as their perp based on faulty investigating and racial profiling early in their investigation. But there is no play-by-play recap of the process that films like these too often resort to, which seems designed to appeal more to morbidly minded amateur detectives than to any real sense of compassion for the human beings involved.
This approach is in line with the film’s broader concerns about the thornier aspects of Lee’s story, which a more conventionally minded documentary might be content to brush over. Despite his case spurring a pan-Asian activist movement that resulted in his retrial and eventual exoneration, Lee continued to struggle after his release. Becoming a cause célèbre doesn’t help you find and keep a job, or purge the trauma of incarceration. Around half of the formerly incarcerated will relapse in some way. Lee doesn’t have a clean, sentimentally inspirational “redemption” arc that will allow viewers to walk away ultimately feeling good. Yet this is a feature, not a bug, because a sentimental approach risks losing sight of the fundamental injustice here — not just in Lee’s specific case, but in the broader institutions underlying it.
Because of this, Free Chol Soo Lee can be a surprisingly hard watch, despite it not lingering on too many gory or upsetting details. In some respects, the matter of factness with which it relates how Lee felt he’d already died countless times before his death in 2014 makes it even more upsetting. In his absence, the film has formerly incarcerated activist Sebastian Yoon read his written reflections on his experiences in voiceover, joined by a panoply of firsthand accounts from people who knew Lee and were part of the movement to free him. There are some parts I wish the film had gone into greater detail — one sequence about the community’s reaction to a whitewashing fiction film adaptation of the case, starring James Woods, could have been so much longer, a potentially rich and incisive piece of media critique about reality versus its commodification. Still, arriving at a time of increased anti-Asian racism in the US and continuing discourse about the inhumanity of its prison system, the movie is a strong historical gut punch.
Free Chol Soo Lee is now playing in select theaters.