Chol Soo Lee (center) found himself at the center of an Asian American political movement. When he was released from prison, he was expected to be a community leader. (Photo by Grant Din)

“Free Chol Soo Lee,” a documentary by Julie Ha and Eugene Yi, will have its online world premiere at Sundance on Friday, Jan. 21, at 8:30 p.m. PST (available until 11:30 p.m.).

Second screening: Sunday, Jan. 23, at 7 a.m. PST (available for 24 hours).

In 1970s San Francisco, 20-year-old Korean immigrant Chol Soo Lee (1952-2014) is racially profiled and convicted of a Chinatown gang murder. Sentenced to life, after a trial hinging on questionable accounts from white tourists, he spends years fighting to survive until investigative journalist K.W. Lee takes a special interest in his case, igniting an unprecedented social justice movement that would unite Asian Americans, and inspire anew generation of activists.

Nearly five decades later, “Free Chol Soo Lee” excavates a largely unknown yet essential story, crafting an intimate portrait of the complex man at the center of the movement, serving as an urgent reminder that Lee’s legacy is more relevant than ever.

Filmmakers Ha and Yi blend rich archival footage, first-hand interviews with activists, and poignant narration drawn from Lee’s personal writings to create a riveting portrait of the movement, as well as the complex man at the center of it, who struggled not only with re-entry but the pressure of being a beacon for his community. This essential yet largely unknown story serves as an urgent reminder of the power of collective action, through a strikingly intimate lens.

Filmmakers’ Statement

We almost titled this film “Release.” In a way, the process of making it has provided some kind of catharsis and closure for those who came to the aid of Chol Soo Lee 40 years ago. His life was so hard for so long, even after his triumphant release from prison. And it’s been the source of a deep ache for many of them because they thought they had saved his life when they fought and won against the all-powerful criminal justice system in this David-vs.-Goliath struggle. As one of them said, it was like a fairytale at first, but then, their hero would suffer even more in “freedom.”

Having them reflect on Chol Soo Lee, the complicated man who carried emotional wounds from his very birth and who felt like he could not live up to the movement’s expectations of him, has provided them some element of healing and release.

We’d like to believe it carries a sense of release for the spirit of Chol Soo Lee, too. Although he felt burdened by the weight that came from being the symbol of a movement, he also tried mightily in his final years to redeem himself and show his gratitude to his supporters. We believe he longed for the chance to tell his supporters his story, so they could better understand where he came from and why it was so hard for him to “succeed” after 10 years in prison, and from a lifetime of deep scars.

Our film attempts to allow Chol Soo to tell his story, speak his truth, warts and all – finally. His parting message at the end of our film will hopefully reach the journalist, the activists and his many supporters who perhaps felt conflicted about the legacy of this first-of-its-kind pan-Asian American movement. And we hope it will also reach all who watch this film, and that audiences will open their hearts and minds to his story.

Note from Narrator Sebastian Yoon

When [producer] Su Kim reached out to me about the film, I recalled having read something brief about Chol Soo Lee while doing research for my senior thesis. I knew he had been wrongfully convicted, and that his case had sparked a pan-Asian movement— b ut nothing more. So, I googled him. I also spoke with a friend who warned there was a bit of controversy surrounding Chol Soo Lee, and that I should think carefully before agreeing to be his voice in the film.

The so-called controversy was about how he had become addicted to drugs and had committed arson in 1991, almost a decade after his release from prison. Despite his past struggles for freedom and justice, and despite the support the Asian community had given him, he had made choices that could land him back inside prison. His story was therefore tainted, or so we assume.

In the U.S. today, more than 50 percent of formerly incarcerated people return to prison within three years of their release. And ever since the inception of mass incarceration in this nation, recidivism rates have always remained high. To explain recidivism or the actions that lead or could lead to it, we often point to structural racism, to the lack of familial and societal support, or simply to the immorality of the culprit or the accused.

The “Free Chol Soo Lee” movement united different generations and ethnic groups in the Asian American community across the country. (Photo courtesy of Ken Yamada/Unity Archive Project)

Yet we seldom contemplate mental health,the trauma caused by incarceration. The hopelessness. The nightmares. The dehumanization. The tormenting tension between the desire for and fear of isolation. And I imagine all of this would have particularly affected the guiltless such as Chol Soo Lee.

I wanted to know his story and listen to him. When I watched the unfinished film for the first time, I was overcome with emotions and memories of my own incarceration. I felt a need to tell people to try and listen to Chol Soo Lee before they formed their opinions, to imagine or at least consider the trauma he likely experienced throughout his childhood and incarceration.

I wanted to honor his memory and legacy. I wanted to remind society that we could be kinder and more empathetic if we truly took the time to learn about and listen to one another.

About the Filmmakers

Co-director/co-producer Julie Ha’s storytelling career spans more than two decades, in both ethnic and mainstream media, with a specialized focus on Asian American stories. She worked as an editor for 10 years at KoreAm Journal, a national Korean American magazine, and served as its editor-in-chief from 2011 to 2014, during which time she led award-winning coverage of the 20-year anniversary of the Los Angeles riots.

She has written for The Hartford Courant in Connecticut, The Rafu Shimpo, and The Los Angeles Times. Her feature stories have earned her awards from New American Media and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2018 the Korea Economic Institute of America honored her for her contributions to journalism.

A graduate of UCLA, where she studied English-American studies and worked as a student editor, she is a past board secretary of the Asian American Journalists Association, Los Angeles Chapter, and a founding board member of the late ’90s reboot of Gidra, a progressive Asian American magazine that originated in 1969.

“Free Chol Soo Lee” marks her first documentary film project.

Co-director/co-producer Eugene Yi is a filmmaker, editor, and journalist. His film editing work has premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival, the TriBeCa Film Festival, and others. Selected titles include the News and Documentary Emmy-nominated “Farewell Ferris Wheel,” a documentary about guest workers in the carnival industry, and “Out of My Hand,” a fiction-documentary hybrid that was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival.

His web video work has been in The New York Times, CNN, “Frontline,” The Washington Post, Buzzfeed News, Al Jazeera, and Deadspin. He served as assistant editor on “Inside Job” (2010), which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. He was named one of the 2017 National MediaMaker Fellows with the Bay Area Video Coalition, for “Free Chol Soo Lee.”

He taught at the Edit Center, a school for film editing formerly based in Brooklyn. Yi’s print journalism has been honored with numerous awards, including the LA Press Club Award for his oral history of the 1992 Los Angeles unrest from the Korean American perspective for KoreAm Journal.

He is a native of Los Angeles and a graduate of Brown University, where he studied neuroscience.

Sebastian Yoon earned a Bard College bachelor’s degree in social studies through the Bard Prison Initiative in 2017. His story is featured in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary “College Behind Bars.” Now an acting program officer at the Open Society Foundations, he is a member of the Democracy Team, working toward building an inclusive, multiracial democracy and leading a portfolio to politically and civically empower Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPIs). Yoon is also pursuing an MPA at Baruch College.

Producer Su Kim is an Academy Award-nominated and Emmy and Peabody Award-winning producer based in New York. She is entrepreneurial, creative and committed to crafting compelling stories and supporting independent filmmakers. Her films in release include “Bitterbush,” the Oscar- and Primetime Emmy-nominated “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” and “Midnight Traveler.”

As a producer, she was awarded the 2015 Women at Sundance Fellowship and CPB/PBS Producers Workshop Fellowship. She was the New York producer for “Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone (If You’re a Girl),” which won the Oscar and BAFTA. She has served as a mentor at the UnionDocs Summer Documentary Labs and the Korean Film Council (KOFIC) S#1 Documentary Lab and as an advisor at the Sundance Institute Documentary Creative Producing Lab.

She is currently producing “One Bullet” (director Carol Dysinger), “Sanson and Me” (director Rodrigo Reyes), “Hidden Letters” (director Violet du Feng), “Baseline Part 1” (director John D. Sutter), “Sarah” (director Tracy Droz Tragos), and “Lines” (director Emelie Mahdavian). Su is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and the Producers Guild of America.

“Free Chol Soo Lee” is her first collaboration with directors Ha and Yi.

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