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“Even in Asian American Progressive Circles, People Have Not Heard This Story”: Eugene Yi and Julie Ha on Their Sundance-Premiering Documentary, Free Chol Soo Lee

Free Chol Soo Lee

Those who knew Chol Soo Lee, or saw his image printed on the posters, stickers, and t-shirts of the 1970s Pan-Asian American movement to release him from jail, often remarked on his stunning beauty. “What a good-looking kid. I mean real good-looking kid,” chirps investigative reporter K.W. Lee, recalling their first encounter at San Quentin Prison in Free Chol Soo Lee, a new Sundance documentary that tells the story of a young man falsely convicted of murder, the symbol he became, and the activists who rallied for both. Later in the film, investigative reporter, Josiah “Tink” Thompson, asks the witness who was closest to the scene of the crime, “Is Chol Soo Lee the person you saw murder Yip Yee Tak?” To which he says, “No. I’m positive he wasn’t. He’s too little, and he’s beautiful. The killer was kind of ugly.”

Chol Soo Lee was only 20 years old when the San Francisco Police Department railroaded him into prison for life. This was a fast wrap on what was, for the officers, a low-stakes investigation into a gang-related, non-white murder. Reporter K.W. Lee followed this trail of negligence, starting with the police reports, which misidentified Chol Soo, a first generation Korean American, as Chinese. Word spread of this heedless conviction, and a popular movement mobilized to demand Lee’s retrial. For reasons beyond his control, he was serving life at 20, and becoming the talisman of a political movement growing outside the prison walls. Ten years later, facing the death penalty, he was acquitted. But his struggle continued, fighting addiction; he felt ashamed whenever he couldn’t live up to the man his supporters hoped he’d be.

In telling this buried, complicated history, directors Eugene Yi and Julie Ha center the relationships between Chol Soo and the friends, reporters, and activists who dedicated years of their lives to free him. Ahead of Free Chol Soo Lee’s Sundance 2022 World Premiere, the co-directors further contextualize the story of Chol Soo, discuss how they approached it, and ruminate on why the case has remained obscure.

Filmmaker: What were some of the early steps in getting Free Chol Soo Lee made?

Julie Ha: Eugene and I have known about the Chol Soo Lee case for several years. We learned about it from K.W. Lee, the journalist in the film. He’s a very influential figure for both of us. I met him when I was 18 years old and he inspired me to become a journalist. The genesis of the film was probably when I attended Chol Soo Lee’s funeral. While I was there, I was overcome with this feeling of heaviness, it was an emotion beyond grief for losing someone. Many of the people there were the activists who came to Chol Soo Lee’s aid, as well as K.W. Lee. They were expressing deep regret that they hadn’t done enough to save Choo Soo Lee even though they dedicated years of their lives to free him, this stranger. I was struck by their depth of humanity. K.W. was very passionate and in a lot of agony; he cried out about why this landmark Asian moment had been lost in history and gone underground.

So, I left there feeling this overwhelming heaviness that stayed with me for a long time. When Eugene and I, who have worked together in the past as journalists for a Korean American magazine, talked about working on a film together, I told him about this heaviness I felt. We knew we had to dig into what was behind that and excavate this unknown story. It felt like this story needed a release.

Eugene Yi: Once we decided to make a film, we talked with K.W. and he introduced us to the key figures involved in the movement—the journalists who covered it and what have you. After talking with person after person, we realized everyone had a box of artifacts from the movement that they preserved because it was so seminal in each of their lives. There was this trove of archives out there—posters, petition signs, photos, and video and audio recordings of Chol Soo. That’s when we realized we could start building a film about Chol Soo Lee.

Filmmaker: I was glad the film didn’t get deep into the weeds of proving or introducing Chol Soo Lee’s innocence to new viewers. You trust the word of Chol Soo and the Chinatown community, and what you show of the case is used to show the San Francisco Police Department’s negligence. There have already been misrepresentations and appropriations of Chol Soo Lee’s image, how did you want to present him with all that in mind?

Yi: As Julie mentioned, what really struck us was the closeness between Chol Soo and the activists. There were a lot of unanswered questions that were bigger than a traditional biopic might get into. When we were putting all the archival material together, of course, we had to make choices about what to prioritize and how to arrange it. We really leaned into the memoir Chol Soo left behind to allow him to tell his story in his own words and in a way almost speak to the activists about what he’d been through in his life, and why things ended up working out the way they did. This led to an incredible collaboration with Sebastian Yoon (who voices excerpts from the memoir). But I feel very lucky to have worked with such a strong editing team—Jean Tsien, Aldo Velasco, Anita H.M Yu, our archival producer Brian Becker. It’s a cliche that film is a collaborative medium, but it was out of that collaboration that we were able to find the intimate spine of the film.

Ha: There were so many directions we could go, and it was hard to find the right focus and balance. But after working on a story for so long you eventually make discoveries you don’t see at first. When I explored the heaviness that I told you I felt, I used to think it was the activists’ and K.W.’s—all the release and closure they needed to feel. But I came to see by the end that part of that heaviness was Chol Soo Lee’s—he wanted the legacy of his life and the movement that he inspired to be positive and go on to inspire new generations. I think he really wanted to provide that peace and closure to the activists, who he cared deeply about and was eternally grateful for. So, centering his voice and the love they felt for each other became a foundational goal for us.

Filmmaker: How do you see distortions and misrepresentations of history in documentary versus narrative? The film brings up the Hollywood movie, True Believers, based on the story of Chol Soo Lee. Recently, there was a total distortion of the documentary The Guardians with Netflix’s I Care A Lot.

Ha: Hollywood obviously saw the inherent drama of the story. But the heroes had to be the white defense attorneys, the white saviors who come in and save the day. Typical Hollywood. So, it was very important that the main characters of our story were Asian Americans–the victims of racial profiling, the hard-charging investigative reporter who breaks open the case, the activists and resistance fighters who decide to battle one of the most powerful institutions in America, the criminal justice system, at a time when Asian Americans have very little political power. In our film, we get to take our rightful place in history and play the front and center roles we did play. 

Filmmaker: Considering the more popular Vincent Chin case, why do you think Chol Soo’s has been comparatively forgotten and suppressed?

Yi: Even though Chol Soo Lee’s case happened years before and was an incredible six-year movement that got someone off death row, the Vincent Chin case is more known. I think this is because Chol Soo’s story doesn’t have a traditionally happy ending. It’s the kind of story that’s harder to talk about. It reflects, to some extent, how difficult it was for the people involved in the case to talk about Chol Soo Lee’s difficulties. He couldn’t live up to what people hoped he would be. I hope we were able to let Chol Soo tell the story of the difficult years of his life while maintaining intimacy with him and the activists. It’s a difficult topic to broach. 

Ha: I think what’s interesting is that Chol Soo addresses this question while he’s alive. He acknowledges himself—that his case was messier. He thought, maybe people would not perceive him as a “pure victim.” As he says in the beginning of the film, he was no angel, and he had his brushes with the criminal justice system. Even we Asian Americans must confront our own model minority myth and learn to embrace histories that aren’t neat and clean. One of our humanities advisors, Richard Kim, a professor at UC Davis, edited Chol Soo’s published memoir. He told us that he had never even heard of the Chol Soo Lee movement after years of Asian American studies. Even in Asian American progressive circles, people have not heard this story. That’s why it was so important for us to make this film, to dig up this buried history. Some of the firsthand sources were still around to tell us what happened and why this is a landmark event with resonance today. 

Filmmaker: When you’re doing the research for the film, how much are you looking into the history on either side of the Chol Soo case to locate and contextualize it?

Ha: We wanted to include the background of the Asian American movement. So, we were looking at the young activists who were activated by ethnic studies during the Civil Rights Movement and then remobilized for the Chol Soo Lee Movement. Many of them were looking for a cause, so the timing of this was sort of incredible. We also did research into [San Francisco’s] Chinatown at the time and why there were formations of gangs and gang violence. Unfortunately, because we had 83 minutes, we had to strip away a lot of scenes that provided more of that context.

Yi: I guess I could shoutout Karen Ishizuka’s Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties. It’s a great book about the Asian American movement during that moment in time and where it falls specifically. It talks a lot about how the Vietnam War united a lot of Asian Americans and really politicized and activated them. Our movement comes after that. Once the war ended, there was a moment when there wasn’t an obvious cause for Asian Americans to rally around. This is the era the Chol Soo Lee case fell into.

Filmmaker: Since you both have personal relationships with K.W. Lee, do you know if he came up against resistance when he published his first stories on Chol Soo?

Ha: Oh gosh. He did. He worked for the Sacramento Union. That’s a Sacramento newspaper—this murder happened in San Francisco. Traditionally, you don’t go into another paper’s town and cover a big story like that. So, he did have to convince his city editor to cover the story, because he was the chief investigative reporter and they depended on him to come up with exposes every day for the paper. So when K.W. pitched this to his city editor, his editor said, “I’m sorry, I can’t really spare you because you’re covering all this other stuff for us.” Then he said, “I’ll make a deal with you. Find a probable cause for his innocence, but investigate it on your own time.” So that’s what K.W. Lee did for 6 months. He investigated on his own time. On weekends he’d drive up to Chinatown to read thousands of pages of court records. He did confide in us that he had moments when he wasn’t sure if he could commit to it any longer because of the workload.

But he said meeting with Ranko Yamada, the young activist who was friends with Chol Soo Lee, and who was not even Korean American but Japanese American, shamed him. “Of course, I have to work on this story as a Korean Immigrant reporter!” It really inspired him to see the story through to the end.

Filmmaker: You don’t introduce any of Chol Soo Lee’s past until he and K.W. meet for the first time. And I was blind-sighted by how fast Chol Soo Lee is arrested in the storyline of the documentary. Can you talk about these pacing and structural choices?

Yi: I think we wanted to depict how blind-sighted he must have felt, the whirlwind of events that led to him being imprisoned. It felt like getting into the story in that way would help the viewer experience that Kafkaesque aspect of the story with him. As far as his backstory goes, discovering it with K.W. Lee felt like a really great way of diving into it. If it had been more linear, a viewer might tune out the backstory. But by that point, our hope is that you care about how Chol Soo got there and then get to uncover it through the character of K.W.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about filling in the visual blanks of Chol Soo Lee’s memoir? You use archival footage in a way that really leads us into different parts of the story—when Chol Soo Lee receives a detention, there is footage of a classroom that cuts to the hallway, kind of taking us out to the principal’s office with him.

Yi: A lot of the credit again goes to our archival producer and editing team. Brian Becker was able to uncover a lot of this footage. Especially after the pandemic started, we realized we had to embrace our identity as an archival film. Working with Brian, we were able to find the footage to create that visual language and define those moments that are repurposed, because a lot of it came from news footage at the time, to fit our story. There were of course wonderful stories as well, like that commercial for K.W.! [laughs] We would not have found that if we did not commit ourselves to the archival path. The idea of a commercial like that for a Korean Immigrant reporter in the ’70s in Sacramento is—well, we were just delighted. And he didn’t even remember it! Then working with Jean Tsien, Aldo Velasco, and Anita H.M. Yu, helped it all come together.

Ha: I just want to give a shoutout to the whole archival team. Brian is amazing, and is a master of his craft, but Tammy Chu, our associate producer, also made some incredible finds. And Brittan Dunham, who did all our licensing. We had a fantastic archival team.

Filmmaker: And why do you eschew archival footage for animation in the prison yard sequences?

Eugene Yi: These were scenes that Chol Soo vividly described both in the memoir and the recorded phone conversations he had. We always knew that there was something extremely cinematic about that moment. This also became a pandemic decision. We were thinking of shooting a kind of stylized recreation of it or something like that. But animation ended up being the answer once those possibilities got closed out. It always ends up being a series of shoutouts, [laughs] but our producer Sona Jo connected us with this incredible animator, Mihye Choi, who created a scene that went so far beyond what we could ever imagine in terms of bringing us into that moment.

Julie Ha: She wanted to know all the details, like what they were wearing. We gave her like a map of what the prison yards looked like…

Eugene Yi: I guess this is another process note because initially, our VO was channeling a lot of those details about how he described the incident. But it started to feel too much like it was saying what we were seeing, and it started to feel clunky. So, we shifted the VO with Sebastian Yoon, who is a formally incarcerated young man, into something that got more inside of what Chol Soo’s mindset was like at the time. This was really important to us because when most people first found out about Chol Soo Lee he already had this other murder conviction on his record. He did kill someone in prison, and that scene had to convey why and how that could be.

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