HomeBreaking BambooHow the hard-luck story of Chol Soo Lee inspired 2 film directors

How the hard-luck story of Chol Soo Lee inspired 2 film directors

By Jana Monji

“The seeds of this film were actually planted at the funeral of Chol Soo Lee back in 2014,” co-director  of Free Chol Soo Lee, Julie Ha remembered.

The moving Free Chol Soo Lee uses archival material and interviews with a variety of people to tell the tragic story of a Korean-born kid who had a rough time transitioning into American society and never quite found peace.  

The documentary is a result of and testament to the transformative effect one man had on many people in the Asian American community. 

The film which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2022,  is currently streaming on the PBS program Independent Lens as of  April 24, 2023.

Investigative reporter KW Lee brought attention to Chol Soo Lee’s wrongful conviction for the murder of a San Francisco Chinatown gang leader and was the catalyst for the formation of the Free Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee. The committee, with the assistance of civil rights attorney Tony Serra, helped exonerate Chol Soo Lee, but Lee’s life didn’t have a fairytale ending.

Lee was a swing-shift janitor, and while he had also been a motivational speaker, he had also been convicted of arson. 

When he died in 2014, the Korean-born Chol Soo Lee was 62-years-old and his San Francisco funeral left his mourners heavy with regret.

headshot of Eugene yi
Eugene Yi. Credit Jean Tsien via Independent Lens.

“I attended the funeral to write an obituary for the Korean American magazine I was working for as well as to check on KW Lee,” Ha said during a Zoom interview (with co-director Eugene Yi).  At the time, she was the editor-in-chief of KoreAm, a monthly print magazine that focused on current events in North and South Korea and Korean Americans as well as Asian American issues. Ha recalled that KW Lee and many others who had known Chol Soo Lee wished they had done more for him.

Ha had come to the Los Angeles-based KoreAm in 2002. The publication was founded in Los Angeles by Jung Shig Ryu and James Ryu in 1990, but published its last issue in December 2015. 

Yi had been raised in Los Angeles, but he attended Brown University, leaving with a degree in neuroscience. “After a short stint working in science, I shifted gears and started focusing on print journalism and filmmaking,” Yi explained. “I had always had a passion for storytelling and the kind of truth you uncover that way.” He worked on and off as a contributor for KoreAm where he met Ha.

“We always enjoyed collaborating together,” Ha remembered. “We just had that shared passion for complicated Asian American stories.”  After KoreAm folded, Ha and Yi were discussing the future.

“I was working for a mainstream publication as a video editor. I really was missing the kind of stories that KoreAm provided an opportunity for,” Yi explained. There are “stories that only can be told by folks from the communities itself” and Chol Soo Lee’s story was one “that just needed to be remembered.”

At that time, Yi had experience in filmmaking as an editor, serving as first assistant editor for A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, and had done a few video projects for KoreAm and had made a short documentary about an Orange County-born  Korean American Iraq War veteran, Dan Choi,  who became an LGBT rights activist. In 2019 though, neither had been actively posting videos on social media nor had they been looking to direct a feature film.

TV News crews surround Chol Soo Lee after he is released from prison on March 28, 1983
By Grant Din via Independent Lens. TV News crews surround Chol Soo Lee after he is released from prison on March 28, 1983

Moreover, the documentary puts a spotlight on Sacramento-based K.W. Lee who Ha considers her mentor. At the time of Chol Soo Lee’s incarceration,  K.W. Lee was a reporter for the Sacramento Union. He was born in North Korea. Yet K.W. Lee hadn’t known Chol Soo Lee before his legal troubles, unlike Ranko Yamada, who is one of the people interviewed in the documentary. 

“I had known Chol Soo Lee a year before he was arrested,” Yamada, a third-generation Japanese American who was raised in Stockton,  explained.  “My sister and I both worked in San Francisco.” Yamada’s sister worked in both Chinatown and Japantown.

“Chol Soo would be walking around and she met him that way.” At the time, Yamada was an undergrad in college. Besides Chol Soo Lee, Yamada had a number of friends in Chinatown who had been arrested.

“During those times in particular there was an agenda by the city of San Francisco to really round up and target anything they considered gang-related in Chinatown.” That’s because, “Chinatown brings in an incredible amount of revenue to the city of San Francisco.”

While Chol Soo Lee’s journey to exoneration wasn’t the only reason, it had a big influence on Yamada’s decision to study law at UC Hasting Law School and, now retired, Yamada became a lawyer.  Yamada had read the obituary that Julie Ha (left. Courtesy: Julie Ha via Independent Lens) had written for Chol Soo Lee,  “I knew that she was a careful, excellent writer.” She added, “I was willing to commit myself based on their commitment.”

The depth of Ha and Yi’s commitment had to be deep to take this sort of plunge. Ha said, “I had to learn a whole bunch of new skills” but what did translate from her previous work was research. Yi had never fundraised for a film nor produced a film. Although he had editing experience, he didn’t end up being the main editor. What the two did do was assemble a passionate brain trust of experienced people to help them tell this story.

One of them, producer Su Kim, found Sebastian Yoon. Yoon had been part of another PBS documentary, Lynn Novick’s College Behind Bars. According to Ha, Kim (left. Credit: Jordan Edwards via Independent Lens) heard Yoon speak at an event and “instinctively knew he could be the voice of Chol Soo Lee.” What Ha liked about Yoon was that he “brought that lived experience” and because of his own time behind bars, Yoon was able “to help flesh out Chol Soo Lee’s internal journey, especially while he was incarcerated.”

Headshot of Sebastian Yoon
Sebastian Yoon. Courtesy Sebastian Yoon via Independent Lens

And Yoon remembered Ha. “He subscribed to the magazine (KoreAm) in prison,” Ha said.  Yoon sent what Ha characterized as a beautiful letter about “running the streets and making bad decisions”  and Ha published it in KoreAm. It had been the highlight of Yoon’s year.

Yi noted that this documentary was only possible because of the generosity of the Asian American community. Yi said, that “so much of a film like this relies on the archival footage and, especially for our communities, you just never know what’s out there because we’ve always been marginalized–not part of the official narrative.” Yi added, “It was just this tremendous honor to see or catch a glimpse of what people have saved and what people were willing to share.”

Supporters of Chol Soo Lee included elderly Korean immigrants such as these two women wearing traditional Korean dresses as they demonstrated outside a Stockton, CA courthouse
By Gail Whang via Independent Lens. Supporters of Chol Soo Lee included elderly Korean immigrants such as these two women wearing traditional Korean dresses as they demonstrated outside a Stockton, CA courthouse

Ha had some advice for prospective documentary filmmakers, one she gleaned from watching a documentary film about documentary filmmakers. “Don’t make the film unless you absolutely cannot not make the film,” because it’s a hard journey. “I imagine there are so many documentary films that are projects started but never finished. You have to be so compelled by your story, feeling that you must tell the story. Every fiber of your being must be committed.” And this was a story that wasn’t told in Asian American history classes and had largely been forgotten. 

Yamada, who has seen the finished documentary, said, “It’s so important for Asian Americans to see what happened,” because all these Asian Americans got together. “When the courts failed, the community came forward.”  

Free Chol Soo Lee” is currently available to stream as of  24 April 2023 as part of the PBS program Independent Lens.

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