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“Free Chol Soo Lee”: Seeking Redemption

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By Stephanie Ornelas

When Korean journalist K.W. Lee first wrote to Chol Soo Lee, who was on death row at a California prison, he had just one thing to say: “I want to talk to you about the problems you are having in America.” His story would soon spur a movement within the Korean community that would last for years to come. 

What happens when a group of people decide enough is enough?

The documentary Free Chol Soo Lee follows a 20-year-old Korean immigrant who was wrongfully-convicted and sentenced to death based on flimsy evidence and inaccurate eyewitness accounts. The film follows the intense issues that arise when it comes to racial profiling and how the Korean community rallied together to bring one man justice.  

The documentary examines the tragic incidents that came before and after Lee’s conviction and the way his story inspired hundreds of thousands of people to stand up for their culture. It provides an interesting perspective when it comes to racial issues, especially in the Asian and AAPI community.

Drawing from a rich archive and firsthand accounts of those who came to Lee’s defense, the documentary cleverly explores this miscarriage of justice. But it also reveals what can happen when one person is thrust into the spotlight as a symbol of a movement, as well as the costs  — and fatal exhaustion — that come along with it. It ultimately is a film about seeking redemption, but not quite finding it. 

During the Q&A following the screening, directors Julie Ha and Eugene Yi, and producers Su Kim and Jean Tsien, truly displayed their passion for this project. 

“A big reason why I got involved is because I felt the story was really buried and I didn’t think that was something that we could allow to happen,” says producer Su Kim. 

A number of the creators agreed that it was the fact that they were unfamiliar with the story that drew them to the project. 

Sebastian Yoon on the other hand, who narrated the voice of Lee throughout the documentary, became familiar with the case when he was writing a paper on Korean American identity in college. Yoon, formerly incarcerated for over a decade, has spent the last few years traveling the country, giving panel conversations and advocating for improved access to higher education for incarcerated people. That’s where he met Su Kim. 

“She reached out to me with this incredible opportunity and it was very hard to say no,” says Yoon. 

The story plays a sort of balancing act when it comes to the overall tone of the film, going from tragic to inspiring and everything in between. And the creators agreed that the task was difficult but necessary. 

“Chol Soo Lee’s life was quite tragic in many ways, but we wanted to make sure that we had a chance for him to have agency and tell his story, and to be able to explain why it was so hard for him,” says Ha. 

“Not just because of the injustice, but also because of the scars of his entire life that made it difficult for him to go on,” she adds.     

And part of telling his story is shining a light on how much Lee was loved and admired, despite those scars. He became a part of something that was bigger than himself, as his story propelled many young activists to make social justice a lifelong pursuit. 

“I think in many ways the film is a release for all the people connected to the story — the supporters, the activists,” says Ha. “There was a deep ache that I know they felt [for Lee]. They revelled in the victory of this movement.”  

And because Lee stumbled so much after his release, and ultimately died seeking redemption, Ha and Yi wanted to give these activists a chance to go through a catharsis themselves and get closure. 

The film does a tremendous job of capturing the audience by telling a tragic tale of a man who never really found his place in society. Bringing the documentary full circle with it’s emotionally-charged ending, the viewer is left feeling as though they knew Lee on a personal level, just as K.W. Lee did the moment they met for the very first time.    

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