‘Free Chol Soo Lee’ Review: An Indictment of the Justice System


Free Chol Soo Lee” tells the story of a wrongfully convicted man who, after spending nearly a decade in prison, was ultimately vindicated in court.

But it isn’t an uplifting movie. As much as it celebrates the exoneration of its subject, a Korean immigrant in California named Chol Soo Lee, this documentary, directed by Julie Ha and Eugene Yi, is concerned with how the consequences of the failure of justice rippled through the rest of his life. It also considers whether the expectations of those who helped him, and his brief moment of celebrity, may have weighed him down. Just because Lee was innocent doesn’t mean he was perfect.

Born in 1952 during the Korean War, Lee was eventually taken by his mother to San Francisco. Having lived, by the movie’s account, somewhat aimlessly, he was convicted of a 1973 killing in Chinatown. Persistent advocacy by K.W. Lee, an investigative reporter for The Sacramento Union, and a coalition of activists drew attention to significant flaws in the case. The process took years, and a separate death penalty case against Chol Soo Lee, for a prison-yard killing, only complicated matters.

“Free Chol Soo Lee” takes its cues from Lee’s own words, read as narration by Sebastian Yoon, and from the recollections of his supporters. Archival material involving K.W. Lee, who said he saw a “very thin line” between himself and the man he was covering, is especially poignant. But “Free Chol Soo Lee” is somewhat dry and, as criminal-justice documentaries go, sadly familiar when it strays from Lee’s unique and grim perspective, which includes details of his struggles with prison life and depression. In a passage used as voice-over, he described death row as a system “designed so that the condemned man would kill himself before his execution.”

Free Chol Soo Lee
Not rated. In English and Korean, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 23 minutes. In theaters.



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