A couple of years ago, the pioneering documentarian Errol Morris said in jest that he felt he had to apologise for his hugely influential The Thin Blue Line. This was as, in his words, “you solve a murder mystery and then people think that’s all documentary should do”. He was undoubtedly referring to the fact that in the streaming age, the genre has become saturated with stories of true crime and judicial malpractice. The boom started with Making a Murderer and hasn’t slowed down since. Very few, if any, of these works have progressed the form much since Morris’ 1988 classic.
This is the environment in which directors Julie Ha and Eugene Yi give us Free Chol Soo Lee, yet another factual film detailing a murder and a miscarriage of justice. Do they do enough to set their work apart in an overstuffed market? Well, yes and no. This is certainly no hackneyed cash grab about a recently trending tragedy. Ha and Yi have made something with great care and sensitivity about a complex figure and complicated life. Unfortunately, they also cannot escape some of the trappings of a genre that is now all too familiar to us. No one would mistake a deeply empathetic work such as this for the grisly, sensationalist stuff dumped on Netflix. Nonetheless, we can’t help but feel we are getting a slightly shallow document of a man who appeared to have lived so many lifetimes in just one life.
Born in Seoul but now living in the US, Korean-American immigrant Chol Soo Lee finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s 1973 in San Francisco, a young man by the name of Yip Yee Tak is fatally shot with a gang feud being the suspected motivation. As luck would not have it, Chol Soo happened to be in his apartment that night playing around with his revolver. He inadvertently fired into the wall, leading to the police being called. The bullet is recovered and is revealed to be the same type of ammunition used in the murder of Yip Yee Tak. Thanks to that truly cruel act of serendipity, along with spurious but convincing claims from the prosecution and some racial profiling for good measure, Chol Soo ends up convicted and imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.
Free Chol Soo Lee thankfully isn’t centred around a pricey legal defence team and their years-long efforts to get a man off. Ha and Yi and more concerned with the community who banded together to overturn an injustice. The San Francisco area Chol Soo resided in was one dominated by an asian diaspora: Japanese, Chinese, and to a lesser extent Korean immigrants and their kin. The efforts of the local churches and activists is the engine that drives much of the film’s first section. The filmmakers don’t just focus on these genuinely moving endeavours because it’s the truth, but also to set the record straight. A hokey oscar-bait movie, inspired by Cho Soo Lee’s story, implied that it was only the legal team and not the grassroots activism which ensured the man’s eventual release. We are shown a clip at one point and Robert Downey Jr’s character feels the need to explain to our lead how he ‘became a symbol to his community’.
Things are also elevated beyond your run-of-the-mill true crime doc by the film’s second half. The directors are as much fixated with life after incarceration as they are with hard-fought emancipation. The result is a character study but only an intermittently compelling one. Cho Soo’s story post-prison is bittersweet. He struggled to cope with expectations of a community who saved him, and the burden of feeling he owed them a worthy life proved too much. He fell into crime after unsuccessful stints as a janitor and other odd jobs. Cruelly, an arson attempt gone wrong nearly kills him and results in disfigurement. That incident leads to him even ending up in witness protection.
All these elements are absorbing in their own right but perhaps don’t get the breathing room they deserve. The activism, his heart-rending experiences at prison, and his later life all divide up the runtime into too many parts. Choo Soo Lee’s fatal stabbing of a white nationalist, for instance, is glossed over before you can hear any version of events other than his own.
Free Chol Soo Lee presents a mostly interesting, tragic portrait of how a life upended by an unjust act can never just be easily course-corrected after rectification. It suffers, however, from truncating an entire, multifaceted existence into a 90-minute exploration.