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How the story of a wrongfully convicted man and his unlikely allies was told

How the story of a wrongfully convicted man and his unlikely allies was told
Chol Soo Lee (center, in white shirt) on the day of his release from prison (Photo by Grant Din)

The documentary Free Chol Soo Lee, director Julie Ha told me, is “the story of a man who suffered more pain than any human being should have to endure in a lifetime, but then it’s also the story of a man who was touched by the most compassionate, justice-loving human beings on the planet.”

Free Chol Soo Lee (PBS, Monday, April 24, at 10, then online), premiered at Sundance last year to rave reviews.

For instance, RogerEbert.com’s Nick Allen wrote that it “gifts many things to its title subject, including the idea of being truly seen” and “has an incredibly assured grasp on how to go back through the past, and reintroduce a life as if you were just meeting them.”

How do you do that, though, in a film that does not have access to its primary subject? Chol Soo Lee—who was wrongfully convicted of a 1973 murder, and released in 1983—died in 2014, before the documentary went into production.

A person looking at the camera, with their hand against a window
Chol Soo Lee in San Quentin State Prison (Photo by John O’Hara/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris)

The film uses first-person narration, from a voice you may recognize from an earlier Independent Lens production: the terrific series College Behind Bars.

I interviewed Julie Ha at PBS’s portion of the Television Critics Association winter press tour earlier this year, and asked her both during the press conference and later about the narration, which is so striking, and really does do an excellent job of illustrating Chol Soo Lee’s life.

I was curious if they drew those first-person words from his own writing.

“We did try very actually hard to stay true to how Chol Soo Lee worded things and expressions he would use, and try to use as much language as we could that he actually wrote or spoke,” Ha told me. “But it was difficult, we found, to just take everything verbatim, word for word, sentence by sentence, to express his truth and his story in 83 minutes. That’s why we took the liberty of scripting.”

During this process, Ha said, she and co-director Eugene Yi “felt this nagging insecurity that we weren’t getting just close enough to this person. You’re telling a film about him and you never got to talk to him yourself. You never got to ask him all the questions you wanted to ask him.”

A portrait of a person with water and lilies behind her
Julie Ha, director of Free Chol Soo Lee

A key collaboration helped change that. Free Chol Soo Lee producer Su Kim saw Sebastian Yoon at a event tied to that series, and they brought him in as narrator.

“We sent him Chol Soo Lee’s published memoir to read, we shared with him transcripts from interviews Chol Soo had done. After reading all that, he said he felt such a close kinship with Chol Soo Lee and really could identify with his experience,” Ha told me. “Sebastian even had to revisit his own trauma of incarceration. He was only released in 2019. He told us once that he felt this strong obligation to Chol Soo to try to speak up for him because he’s not with us anymore.”

Telling Chol Soo Lee’s story in less than 90 minutes took six years, and a big team.

Ha and Eugene Yi “previously worked together as journalists for” KoreAm Journal, she said, and though “we actually have very different storytelling styles, but always have had a real respect for each other.” He focused on editing; she focused on research and reporting.

In our conversation, Ha also gave credit to the entire team. “So much comes together in the edit, as you know. Aldo Velasco and Jean Tsien, incredible talents—they really helped us shape the film and the story and the structure, and really make sure that our emotional points had impact.”

“Also our producer, Su Kim, provided so much creative input. As I told you, Sebastian Yoon was actually her discovery, as well as our composer, Gretchen Jude, whom she had worked with for Midnight Traveler. We just feel tremendously lucky that we sort of had this chorus of people that came together. In a way, it mimics the movement itself, which took six years to free Chol Soo Lee, and we often talk about how our film took six years to make. We love that parallel.”

A person surrounded by press
Chol Soo Lee surrounded by media after being released from prison on March 28, 1983. (Photo by Grant Din)

Chol Soo Lee’s experience, Julie Ha told me, “actually influenced a whole generation of young Asian Americans who would dedicate their lives later to social justice and working toward the public good. Many of them became defense lawyers, including public defenders. They became leaders in the community, and they just became change makers.”

“We’re living through a time of, as you know, a terrifying spike in anti-Asian violence,” she added. “And I think sometimes you can start to feel helpless and hopeless, but we hope that when people see this film, not only will people acknowledge—wow, racism has existed against Asian Americans for as long as we’ve been in this country—but also that, look at how these people responded.”

“Chol Soo Lee, he was the child of the Korean War. He was the victim of horrendous racism in this country. And then society and the criminal justice system was essentially telling him, you’re disposable,” Ha told me. “Then here comes a group of people—young and old, politically conservative and politically radical—who formed this unlikely alliance to free him from prison. They essentially told him: You are worthy of our time, attention, love, and care. That’s a powerful act of courage and compassion and conviction. And that’s the kind of lesson we need to hear today.”

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