Several people in the documentary Free Chol Soo Lee describe Lee as very handsome.
Several people in the documentary Free Chol Soo Lee describe Lee as very handsome. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

This weekend, Northwest Film Forum is screening several films—including this one!—as part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival's Satellite Screen program. Learn more about the program here.

On June 3, 1973, bullets killed Yip Yee Tak in the middle of a busy street in the heart of San Francisco's Chinatown. An investigation of the murder led the police to Chol Soo Lee, a young immigrant from Korea who, a few days before, accidentally discharged a gun in his apartment. The police recovered the bullet from Chol's wall and matched his gun, which he borrowed from his boss, with the murder. It was pretty much case closed from that point on. The court found Lee guilty and sentenced him to life in prison. Ten years later, he was released from prison after a retrial revealed numerous holes in the police work that resulted in his conviction. Lee did not kill Yip Yee Tak, a “Chinatown gang leader,” and this fact would never have seen the light of day if it weren't for the unified effort of the Asian American community (Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, so on). The formation and determination of this local liberation movement, which began with articles by an investigative reporter, K. W. Lee, is the subject of Free Chol Soo Lee, a straightforward but engaging documentary by Julie Ha and Eugene Yi.

But why is this story at all important? The answer: It preserves and narrates an important episode in the development of what can be called Asian American identity. There are a number of ways of becoming American. One is the melting pot, which as the horrible 1930 film King of Jazz shows, was offered only to Europeans. Before the pot, you were European; after the pot, you were white.

With blacks it was the invention of a new culture that though very American, was, musically and spiritually, still African. In the case of Asian Americans, who at the time of Lee's arrest were concentrated on the West Coast, and particularly Northern California, it was the unification of Americans with origins in China, South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. And the reason Lee played an important role in this unification process is because many recognized in his life the real pain, suffering, and humiliation that came with Asian Americanization. Lee was born poor and never became rich, even at the height of his celebrity. What you will not find in the path of his life is anything like the American dream.

U.N.I.T.Y. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Lee's story really begins when, at the end of World War Two, the US and the USSR arbitrarily split Korea into two parts, one in the north and one in the south. Five years later, South Korea and North Korea plunged into a war initiated by the grandfather of Kim Jong-un. The war, whose gravity pulled in the United States and China, lasted three years. Lee was born in the middle of that very bloody confrontation between the superpowers, 1952. His father was an American soldier, and his mother, according to the documentary, a disgraced Korean woman who moved to the United States without her son. Lee lived on the streets of Seoul, collecting scraps and eating very little. In 1964, his mother returned to Seoul, reclaimed him, and took him to San Francisco, whose streets and incarceration system soon became a part of his life.

Lee's life, which ended in 2014 at the age of 62, was filled with pain. His mother abused him, doctors pumped drugs into him because they thought he was mentally ill (he just had great difficulty learning English), he was lonely, worked in the underworld, and eventually ended up on death row while surviving time for a murder he did not commit. It is, I think, the identification with this pain, which did not end with his release from prison (indeed it became terrifically physical), that a constellation of Bay Area and North American Asian activists gathered around Lee. "I'm not a hero," he says at one point of the documentary, "I'm a human being."

Free Chol Soo Lee Screens at the Northwest Film Forum on Sunday, Jan 30 at 5.30 pm.