Julie Ha and Eugene Yi’s six-year journey to illuminate the life and legacy of Chol Soo Lee, a Korean American man falsely convicted of murder, began at the end of his story.
While Ha first learned of him through her mentor K.W. Lee, a journalist who played an instrumental role in raising awareness of the injustices that plagued the wrongly convicted man, she truly came to grips with the gravity of Chol Soo Lee’s situation at his funeral.
“I had attended that funeral to write an obituary for a print magazine … and also to try to comfort K. W, who was in terrible anguish because he had outlived Chol Soo Lee,” Ha shares. “And at one point [K.W. Lee] stood up and he was clutching the Buddhist monk walking stick Chol Soo had carved for him. He was angry, and also in anguish, and he said, ‘Why is the story still unknown?’ After all, you know, this was a landmark Asian American social justice movement, to free this man from prison, and they succeeded. Why is this movement forgotten?”
It was the pervading sense of lament over a movement that had appeared to die along with the man it attempted to rescue which planted the seeds for “Free Chol Soo Lee.” When Yi, a fellow journalist and experienced filmmaker, reached out to Ha to make a film together, the emotional weight she felt while at the funeral drew them both to the story of Chol Soo Lee, who became a death row inmate wrongfully accused of a gang-related murder in the ‘70s.
“We just felt like the story beckoned us and it was too important to allow it to stay buried in history,” Ha says. “It’s such a singular story, and it felt like it was also hugely consequential, especially now for the times we’re living in.”
Without the existence of an archive dedicated to documenting historic events within the AAPI community, the directing duo and their team of producers and editors had to sift through hours of footage to create their own for the film’s visuals.
“I think one of the really gratifying things for us as Asian Americans was to be able to bring this archival, and then share it in the way that we’re doing so with the film because with archival footage, so often with our community we just don’t have that and we just don’t see that we’re not taught our history, and so often it’s just not preserved,” Yi says.
“Oftentimes when we were going through and getting this archive, it was from personal archives of the people who had been involved in the movement one way or the other, and they found that we come to call this underground archive of material that would not have been preserved if it were not for what these activists, what these journalists with these filmmakers back then had done,” he adds.
Another layer that brought the world of Chol Soo Lee and his movement to life were the film’s carefully curated musical selections, which not only supplement the visuals, but also sonically personify many of the film’s central themes.
Tower of Power’s “You’re Still a Young Man” is a wistful ode to youth that serves as a character motif for Chol Soo Lee, who was unceremoniously and wrongfully imprisoned at just 20 years old.
“The scene that we have where he’s going to prison and he hears that song is something that he wrote specifically about in his memoirs,” Yi says. “Just imagine, being taken to prison for a murder he didn’t commit, not really understanding what’s happening around you — what K. W. Lee called this Kafkaesque situation — to hear that song just struck us as something that was so emblematic of his situation.”
On the other hand, the peppy protest song “The Ballad of Chol Soo Lee,” written by Jeff Adachi and performed in collaboration with local musicians in the thriving Asian American art scene, is a testament to the enterprising spirit of the AAPI diaspora.
“Jeff jokes that it was written like more of a folk song with a ‘60s style, and he added the baseline because he was a bass player to give it a little bit more of a modern, funky feel,” Yi shares. “It speaks to the youthful energy that was there and just the real DIY spirit of wanting to do everything you could to help the effort to get Chol Soo Lee out.”
In terms of original compositions, Yi credits the creativity of Gretchen Jude, who took inspiration from a host of diverse soundscapes.
“We discussed using the approach [for the prison scenes] that will use archival sound from the prisons at the time to reflect everything that Chol Soo was going through in terms of being confined and oppressed,” Yi says. “The use of Korean lullabies is really important to us, as well. Gretchen was really able to take some of these very basic melodies that we grew up hearing from that young age and [then weave] them into the film in a way that I think gives it some of its power.”
Though Ha and Yi’s film is the second major depiction of the Chol Soo Lee case — the first being “True Believer,” a Hollywood courtroom drama — Ha notes that unlike its predecessor, which reduces Asian American communities to mere props, “Free Chol Soo Lee” places them at the center of the story.
“There’s almost a mythical quality to our film in the sense that, we’re not used to seeing an Asian American who was the victim of racial profiling and gets railroaded by the criminal justice system,” Ha says. “We’re not used to seeing an Asian American in the role of the heroic journalist who comes in and digs for the truth and routes out this injustice. We’re not used to seeing Asian Americans as this group of activists, young and old, you know, politically radical and politically conservative, coming together and leading this movement of resistance.”
“In our film, we as Asian Americans get to take on those roles and that’s the truth of what happened. It was a very important goal for us to make sure that the truth of the story is known and that our roles in it are not erased,” she adds.
In addition to speaking with these activists, reliving their against-all-odds victories and reclaiming their narratives, discussing Chol Soo Lee’s tragic downward spiral in the aftermath of his release was a way to mend old wounds inflicted by his untimely demise.
“The very act of us making the film, it allowed these activists to go on this journey of catharsis and maybe even coming to peace with what happened to Chol Soo Lee, and that actually is quite important,” Ha says. “There was even one activist who said that after she watched the film, she felt like she could let go of some heaviness that she used to feel whenever she thought about Chol Soo Lee, and that was really moving for us to hear.”
Though Ha emphasizes that she does not want to be prescriptive in how audiences respond to the film, she concedes that one of the most important lessons from Chol Soo Lee’s story is the incredible potential for empathy and compassion that exists within everyone for anyone.
“These activists and K. W. Lee, they looked upon [Chol Soo Lee], even though he was just this poor immigrant street kid, and said, ‘He actually deserves our time, attention, love and care,’ even as the rest of American society were saying he’s disposable,” Ha says. “We think that kind of principle and that act of courage, conviction and compassion is a lesson that we do hope audiences will internalize and embrace because I think that’s so important for us to carry with us, especially today.”
“Our country can feel so divided, and I think if we have those moments where we make that kind of deep human connection and feel empathy for others, we have to lean into it, to embrace it and draw inspiration from it.”
“Free Chol Soo Lee” is set to release in select theaters on Aug. 17.
Featured Image via Mubi