Opening Night Film “Free Chol Soo Lee” Spotlights a Forgotten Moment in Asian American Activism

FREE CHOL SOO LEE CAAMFest40
“…We honestly believe that this story has the potential to change the way the public at large sees Asian Americans and how we Asian Americans see ourselves.” – Julie Ha

CAAMFest Opening Night film, Free Chol Soo Lee, tells a powerful and insightful story about one man who sparked an Asian American movement. Directed by Julie Ha and Eugene Yi, the documentary is a classic example of how a nuanced story can only be told with the sensitivity of  community journalists who are both Korean American. Both from Los Angeles, Julie Ha and Eugene Yi met when Ha was editor-in-chief of KoreAm Journal (now Character Media). Ha had edited many of Yi’s stories. Years later, Ha and Yi both briefly met their subject, Chol Soo Lee, at an event in 2013. 

The idea behind the film is largely inspired by reporter K.W. Lee, one of Ha’s mentors. Lee had reported on Chol Soo Lee’s case, and became a father-like figure to the convicted man. The two filmmakers sought to tell the mostly-forgotten story of Chol Soo Lee, whose life story does not follow a neat path, nor does it fit in with the model minority myth. The filmmakers also credit another journalist, Sandra Gin, a broadcast reporter who made the first documentary about Chol Soo Lee in 1983, entitled Perceptions: A Quest of Justice.

Free Chol Soo Lee, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, is produced by Su Kim, Jean Tsien, and Sona Jo, and narrated by Sebastian Yoon. The film includes archival footage from 1970s San Francisco Chinatown and features interviews with many community activists, including the late Jeff Adachi. Below, Ha and Yi discuss the making of their film. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you both get into journalism and documentary filmmaking?

Julie HaJH: I was inspired to become a journalist after meeting my mentor K.W. Lee, who at the time (this was 1990) was just starting a weekly newspaper called the Korea Times English Edition. Before that, he had led quite an impressive and expansive career as an award-winning investigative reporter covering, as he often says, “the Jim Crow South to the Yellow Peril West” for mainstream newspapers. He regularly rooted out acts of political corruption in the California state capital, and embedded himself with working-poor families in Appalachia, West Virginia, to humanize their struggles. 

I was just this shy, sheltered 18-year-old, and encountering the force of nature that is K.W. Lee sort of blew my mind and rocked my world. I mean, when the first journalist you ever meet is this fearless, very foul-mouthed Korean immigrant whose hard-charging investigative reporting helped free a wrongfully convicted man from prison, you pay attention and suddenly your whole world changes. I started to hear phrases like “voice for the voiceless,” “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted,” associated with the role of a print journalist. K.W. passionately asserted that all people, from all communities, deserve to be seen and heard in our “full human context, warts and all.” For a young Korean American who largely felt unseen and unheard, and not allowed to be fully human in the eyes of mainstream media, I suddenly felt like there was something I could do to challenge and change that through journalism and storytelling. 

As for documentary filmmaking, I went down this road quite by accident. My friend Eugene, who had one foot in journalism and the other in filmmaking, wanted us to collaborate on a documentary, and at that time, I couldn’t get the Chol Soo Lee story out of my head. “Somebody needs to make a documentary about that story!” I remember saying, and so we decided to dive in. It turned out to be a six-plus-year journey. 

eugene yiEY: Writing and film have always been twin passions for me. I started out by working as a reporter, thinking it’d be a way to hone a craft, at a now-defunct weekly in downtown Los Angeles called the Garment & Citizen, which covered the various communities and industries in downtown. It had a bit of a contrarian’s spirit, thanks to its publisher, which I could appreciate. But the paper also had a big heart for the immigrants who live and work there. And it was through covering the lives of immigrants in downtown that I fell in love with the process of reporting, of interviewing, researching, and writing, particularly to elevate the voices of non-white and non-English speaking communities. People who looked like my parents, or my friends’ parents. And it set me on a path that I still find myself on today.

At a certain point, I was ready for a change, and so I moved to New York and started working in film. After a couple of years in the esteemed field of production assistance, I found a sympathetic producer who offered to help me get into a department I wanted to be in. That’s how I ended up in the edit room, and when I got my first opportunity to work on a documentary, I jumped at the chance. It just seemed like a perfect place for me, to merge my interests.

Julie, you first learned about Chol Soo Lee from your mentor, journalist K.W. Lee. Why did you want to make a documentary about Chol Soo? 

JH: You know, when we first interviewed Ranko Yamada and asked her why she helped Chol Soo Lee, I remember she said that there’s never just one reason. She had many. I feel like I could say the same about why I wanted to make this film. First of all, it’s such a powerful, singular story that was at risk of becoming lost in history if we did not excavate it and tell it anew. When we found out that even Asian American Studies scholars had never heard of this case – arguably the first successful pan-Asian American social justice movement of its kind – and it’s often not even taught in Asian American Studies classes that made this undertaking even more urgent. This may sound lofty, but we honestly believe that this story has the potential to change the way the public at large sees Asian Americans and how we Asian Americans see ourselves. And at a time when we’re confronting anti-AAPI hate and violence, our story is so timely. 

But, this project was also just deeply personal for me. My beloved mentor was in terrible pain because he had outlived Chol Soo Lee, who saw K.W. as a father figure. He shared that their last contact was a stormy one, as often can happen with people who are like family, and he regretted that. I wanted to comfort him. And comforting K.W. meant continuing his work to tell Chol Soo’s story, but now it’s the whole story, with 40-year hindsight, “warts and all,” and also to remind him of the loving moments he shared with Chol Soo – which you see in our film.

And, finally, we also made this film to free Chol Soo Lee. I’m not a religious person, but I honestly feel like many of us made a spiritual connection to Chol Soo while working on this project. I used to think the heaviness in the funeral space came from the grief of K.W. and the activists, but I’ve since come to realize that maybe it was the spirit of Chol Soo not quite at peace. I think, despite the pressure and burden he felt from being the symbol of a movement, he felt almost unconditional love and gratitude toward those who helped him and stood by him over the years. I believe he would not have wanted the people he left behind to think of him with sadness, regret, or to avoid talking about the Free Chol Soo Lee movement because they still felt such a heaviness. So this film became this vehicle for Chol Soo to deliver his message to them – to tell them his story, explain all he had to overcome, his own regrets, and his ultimate wish that they could still believe that they “did the right thing” in helping him. It became a way for him to find agency and share his truth, but also for him to honor those who asserted more than 40 years ago that this poor Korean immigrant street kid – who was not a model minority – was worthy of a landmark movement because there are other Chol Soo Lee’s out there. 

And today, once new audiences learn of this story – part of our history not only as Asian Americans, but as Americans – each of us has the potential to play a role in freeing Chol Soo Lee by heeding its lessons and allowing it to move us, change us, inspire us. The legacy can continue.

How was K.W. Lee involved in the film, and has he seen it? What were his reactions?

JH: K.W. has been such an important part of our filmmaking process. Even in his 90s, he’s ever the reporter, digging, probing … as the radio ad in our film says! Sometimes he’d make late-night discoveries of old letters or photo negatives that might be connected to Chol Soo Lee, and then he’d alert us excitedly. He is an incredible packrat and kept so much archival material on the case, and that really helped us. He also connected us to many of the activists involved in the movement, and interviewed with us several times over the years. He kept urging us to dig up the truth, the whole truth, warts and all. 

And he did see the film several times! He called it a “homerun.” I think one of the most moving things he said about it is, “At last, Chol Soo Lee is free.” We’re so grateful he lived to see the finished film.

FREE CHOL SOO LEE

Julie, in the press packet Q&A, you talk about the sense of grief you felt when you attended Chol Soo Lee’s funeral, and also witnessing your mentor’s grief. Can you talk more about this process and emotion? Was making the documentary part of your healing?

JH: It was a modest Buddhist funeral attended by a small group of people, including K.W. and many of the activists who had stood by Chol Soo, even after his release from prison. I remember seeing K.W. in so much anguish. Clutching the walking stick that Chol Soo had carved for him, he stood up and cried out angrily, “He died 100 deaths in that goddamned living hell known as the California prison system, and even in freedom, he suffered a thousand deaths!” And then he questioned why, after all these years, this landmark movement that coalesced around this Korean street kid remained “underground” and unknown. 

I felt a heaviness in that space that went beyond grief. I was also struck by what some of the activists were saying: Even though they had devoted several years of their lives to freeing him, and some of them even helped him during his struggles after prison, they said that he did more for them than they ever did for him. That depth of humanity and compassion moved me deeply, and the heaviness stayed with me for a long time. So, when Eugene and I started talking about making a film together a year later, we knew we had to dig into this story. It was too important to stay buried, and felt like it needed a release. That K.W. and the activists needed a release. 

In terms of my own healing, that’s an interesting question. When we premiered the film at Sundance, and got very positive responses including from K.W. and many of the people who knew Chol Soo personally, I have to admit I did feel an incredible release and peace myself. One activist told me that she used to think about Chol Soo Lee with a heavy heart, but after watching the film, she now feels a lightness when thinking of him. I teared up when she said this.

On a much more personal note, two years into this film journey, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I noticed that experience did cause me to think about Chol Soo Lee in a different way. I meditated quite a bit about his pain, suffering and trauma, plus the burden of showing people on the outside a happy, strong face, and just how hard it must have been for him to overcome all of that. There were so many forces working against him. I also thought a lot about death and how we’d like to be remembered by those we leave behind, how we wouldn’t want them to carry this ache. Chol Soo endured more suffering than any human being should endure in a lifetime, and yet, as activist Ranko Yamada once said, he kept “getting back up” over and over again. That is so remarkable and moving. So, Chol Soo Lee ended up becoming quite an important source of reflection and inspiration for me during some dark hours when I was having trouble picking myself back up, and in that sense, I guess I did unexpectedly experience my own healing with this film. I thank him. 

You are able to tell a well-rounded story that doesn’t necessarily tie up neatly nor does it subscribe to the model minority myth. Chol Soo Lee was not a perfect hero. Do you think that’s part of the reason his story hasn’t really been told more widely to today’s generation? 

EY: Chol Soo himself spoke on this and actually contrasted his story with Vincent Chin’s. Chol Soo felt his own story wasn’t as clear cut, because it involved gangs and some degree of criminality on his part. Sometimes I do wonder whether we have a bit of a model minority myth about our own community. I think it’s a broader human inclination as well, to prefer tidy narratives. And Chol Soo Lee’s story resists a clean takeaway. It’s too messy, too human. But there was the risk that the many lessons that can be drawn from Chol Soo Lee’s life might have been lost.

Do you feel a responsibility or weight in telling a story of a man who is no longer alive? 

JH: Yes, that was a very heavy responsibility, and we definitely felt the weight. It was important to us that Chol Soo, though no longer with us, could have agency and tell his own story. But we ourselves never had a chance to interview him, and I think that sometimes caused us to worry we weren’t doing him justice. But then when Sebastian Yoon, who in our film provides the voice of Chol Soo Lee, joined our project in 2021, so much fell into place. 

We can’t thank our producer Su Kim enough for “discovering” him. She had attended an event for a documentary series called College Behind Bars, and was surprised to see a Korean American on the panel representing the film. That was Sebastian, who was featured in the series. It followed the stories of those who had participated in the Bard Prison Initiative, which gives incarcerated men and women the opportunity to attend college classes and earn their degrees. After hearing him speak, Su was so moved by his honesty, genuineness and friendly spirit. She intuitively felt like he could be the voice of Chol Soo Lee. After Eugene and I watched the series, we were also moved and convinced. 

So we reached out to Sebastian, and after showing him a cut of the film, he became quite emotional and said he could relate to Chol Soo quite a bit. We also sent him Chol Soo’s published prison memoir, and from there worked with Sebastian to develop our script for Chol Soo’s narration. He emphasized that it wasn’t just violence Chol Soo battled while incarcerated. He helped us flesh out key episodes in Chol Soo’s memoirs that spoke to the dehumanization, loneliness and depression he faced while in prison for 10 years. Sebastian told us one day that, because Chol Soo was no longer with us, he felt the responsibility to speak up for him. He wanted to make sure that, when people learned his story, they would refrain from judging him, but could look at him with compassion and an open heart. We think this genuine intention, plus Sebastian’s own lived experience, lends such power and heart to his narration.

FREE CHOL SOO LEE

What were some of the challenges in making and completing this film?

EY: Both of us are first-time directors, and it was not easy for either of us. Julie, of course, was making the transition from print journalist to filmmaker. And I was trying to grow from being an editor to director. We really had no idea how hard it would be to make a feature film, especially on this subject. So it was important to have a team to lean on, and more experienced voices to guide us. You really need strong producers as first-time filmmakers, so Su and Jean Tsien, as well as our South Korean producer Sona Jo, were absolutely vital in helping us finish the film. We’re very lucky they were part of our team.

The pandemic, of course, presented a huge obstacle for us. We had originally intended to shoot more interviews and recreations. But we decided to halt production instead, and err on the side of caution. This pushed us to embrace our identity as an archival film. By working with talented editors like Jean and Aldo Velasco, and our co-editor Anita H.M. Yu, along with our archival team led by archival producer Brian Becker, the film truly came to life in the edit. We found that the more we pared away our modern-day footage, the more immersive the film became. The archival seemed to gain more power. It really became a guiding principle, to let the archival speak to us.

It really drives home one takeaway from the process, which is that the act of preservation is an intentional act. Someone has to make a decision to preserve a story, or a videotape, or a cassette. There would be no Free Chol Soo Lee film if not for the Asian American journalists, filmmakers, scholars and documentarians working at the time: Sandra Gin, Chris Chow, Serena Chen, Elaine Kim, Young Shin, Michael Chin, and not to mention K.W. Lee. They saw the value in this story for our community. After all, this was a transpacific, international effort led by Korean immigrants and Asian American radicals to free a man from death row. These mediamakers understood the importance of preservation, so they became caretakers and archivists of their own work. These personal archives became something of an underground archive, which we were able to tap into. 

It got me really thinking about why, as an Asian American, archival footage has such power for me. I’ve always been moved by old photos, particularly of Asians in America, in a way that seemed distinct from old photos in general, which will always have a nostalgic trait to them. And as I interrogated my reaction, I felt it was rooted in what I personally have always felt as a bit of a divide when it comes to intergenerational conversations in the Korean and Asian American communities. Some of it I think has to do with language. How many of us, the children of immigrants, are fluent enough to have a conversation, on equal linguistic footing, with our parents or grandparents? I feel a tremendous sense of loss surrounding this, for all the stories that will disappear, all the conversations that can’t be had.

I think another part comes from the lack of awareness of our history. I didn’t even really hear about the activism and lives of other second, third, and fourth generation Asian Americans of previous generations until college. And I think this is why stereotypes like the perpetual foreigner myth, for me, got internalized a bit. It was hard to imagine myself as being anything but a recent arrival, because I could not detect the presence of those who had gone before. So seeing old photos and video of Asians in America provided a glimpse into a past that completely reshaped my concept of the present.

What was it like working with Jeff Adachi? How do you feel about having him in the film, since he has passed away? Did he get to see any of the film before completion?

EY: I still remember the day Jeff agreed to an interview with us. He was one of the most high-profile people who came out of the Chol Soo Lee movement, and at the time we started work on the film, he was serving as the elected public defender of San Francisco. So when he agreed to an interview, it felt like quite the “get”!

He really could not have been more supportive. But it’s perhaps not surprising. He was a filmmaker himself, and always had a relationship with the creative arts, going back to penning the lyrics to the “Ballad of Chol Soo Lee.” He was a big believer in the importance of storytelling. Which makes it all the more tragic that we were unable to complete the film before his passing.

Jeff cited his work on Chol Soo’s case as his inspiration for becoming a public defender. But I find myself thinking of how it also awakened a sense of solidarity in him as well. Inter-Asian solidarity, as displayed during the Chol Soo Lee movement, was not common at the time. The very term “Asian America” was still relatively new. So he and the other activists helped forge this idea through their work. And he continued to embody this solidarity in his career from then on.

Why do you think the film is relevant to today’s audience?

EY: We don’t like to be too prescriptive about the audience takeaways or relevance. We’ve found that the story strikes people in different ways, and we really want to leave it open for the viewer to come to their own conclusion about it. 

For me personally, I’ve found my thoughts centering on a few questions. The past few years have been difficult for people who look like us. I live near New York City, where in recent months, there have been some horrific incidents. This compounds everything from the past few years, whether it’s the way the pandemic became radicalized, to the shootings in Georgia. So I feel the violence that’s been happening around me, how it shapes my life, my friends’ lives, in how we navigate physical space, as Asian American bodies. And how they take up space. So in a time when just taking off my mask—or keeping it on!—can feel like an act of resistance, to just exist publicly is an act of resistance, I find myself thinking of the activists and of this history of resistance. How can knowing this history help us in our current moment?

And from seeing Chol Soo’s story, it’s just so easy to ask ourselves some simple questions. Currently, questions about criminal justice reform do not often center on Asian Americans. Why is that? Who is ignored? And when we see what an unjust imprisonment and institutionalization did to Chol Soo, what do we make of the fact that people—Asian American or not—are still being unjustly imprisoned? Is there opportunity to stretch our conception of ourselves, to emphasize the American part of Asian American, and see ways we can find solidarity and ally ship with other communities? 

I also find myself thinking about purpose and meaning. Chol Soo himself posed this question in the interview we have in our film, where he talks about how he had suffered an “enormous amount of pain he never asked for to be [sic].” It’s a question with a religious dimension. How does one make sense of a life that was filled with so much suffering? How does one avoid descending into darkness? For him, he credited the activists who fought on his behalf. Their compassion was an act so “pure and unconditional” that it made him want to share it with others, “when they are in pain.” This strikes me as an important insight. The importance of pain, in the creation of compassion and empathy. How can this insight be lived in our relationships around us?

I’ll add that during the course of working on this film, I became a father. My daughter is three now. When I think of Chol Soo’s story, it feels like it’s part of a history that could give her a sense of connection and groundedness to life in America. Because I hope my daughter never looks in a mirror and feels like I did, like I didn’t belong. I want her to feel free, to take up space. Can such a place exist? I don’t know. But in some ways, by connecting to our history, by taking up space, by existing, we are building something. So in a way, just being an Asian American today is a creative act. It has to be.

JH: I would just add that, as far as takeaways go, sometimes people tell us how sad and tragic the Chol Soo Lee story is, after watching the film. Yes, it’s true, but I also think how it all “ends” is really up to those of us who are still living. After learning about this story, this history, how will we respond? Will we allow it to change us, move us, inspire us to be more compassionate, to do our part in creating a more just society? K.W. Lee has said that people without a history are hollow. Armed with knowledge of this incredible history, of this unlikely movement that formed around a street kid, new generations can keep carving out a meaningful and lasting legacy for Chol Soo Lee.

Can you talk more about CAAM’s role in the film, support from CAAM, and any involvement from staff members such as Don Young or Stephen Gong?

JH: We can’t praise CAAM enough for its support of our project and of us. They came in as an early backer, and always felt like true partners and passionate advocates on this long journey. We remember how Stephen Gong even dug up an old Asian American magazine that ran a story about Chol Soo Lee from his own personal archive! Don Young watched multiple cuts and always gave us incredibly insightful notes. Even with our pretty bad early assemblies, he could find the little gems and give us that sense of hope that we are in fact making progress. I will always remember how Don urged us not to feel beholden to any kind of community obligation to tell a certain kind of story or tell it in a certain way. He always encouraged us to heed and embrace our own perspective and what we wanted to say with this story – to stay true to that. And honestly, that was very liberating. Yes, this is a story that has huge importance for the Asian American community and Asian American history, but at the same time, the desire to tell this story emerged from a deeply personal place. That was important to honor and I believe allowed for an honest, authentic, perhaps unique telling of this story. We owe so much to Don, Stephen, and CAAM, and are thrilled to be CAAMFest’s Opening Night film!

Momo Chang is a freelance journalist in the Bay Area and the former Content Manager at CAAM. She works at Oakland Voices—a community journalism training program and a part of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.

“Free Chol Soo Lee” will be showing at selected theaters nationwide beginning August 17. Get showtimes and tickets here.

 

CAAMFest40 Opening Night is made possible with support from the Comcast Xfinity, Amazon, Asian Art Museum, and KQED.

 

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