This documentary tells the story of a young Korean immigrant, Chol Soo Lee, who is plucked off the lawless streets of Chinatown by a justice system that shows no justice. It’s a David and Goliath tale but this time, David has no sling. As well as shining a painful spotlight on the plight of child immigrants, it also highlights the searing inequities of life in America in general.
Chol Soo is born in the crossfire of the Korean war to a single mother. When she marries an American, she abandons both her land and her child. 12 years later, and newly divorced, she swoops back in and takes Chol Soo to live in a country he’s never even heard of.
He’s isolated both in school and in his neighborhood. His mother beats him daily, simply because she can. Chol Soo often runs away and, as time goes by, he stops going back home at all, and drifts onto the streets that are ruled by violent gangs.
By association and a minor rap sheet, he comes to the attention of the local police. And when they need a fall guy for a major crime, he’s their victim of choice. Despite evidence to the contrary, 20 year-old Chol Soo is convicted of murder and handed a life sentence. He undoubtedly would have stayed there had it not been for the fortitude of an intrepid investigative journalist.
K.W. Lee was a Korean reporter when he came across Chol Soo’s case. He realized a grave injustice had been done, and in an attempt to highlight the young man’s plight, Lee turned to the Korean community for support.
And support him they did. Not only did they fight for justice, but they inspired a whole generation of Pan Asian American activists. They even wrote a song, ‘The Ballad of Chol Soo Lee’ that filled the airwaves for months. The charismatic young Korean became the symbol of their cause.
With so much publicity, Chol Soo’s murder conviction was eventually revisited. It could be assumed that the result of this retrial is where the story ends but, in fact, this is not the case.
Chol Soo Lee’s saviors had done such a great job of alerting Chicago to his plight, by the time he returned to court, he had reached the status of an icon. That’s a high bar for anyone to balance on, but if you’re a street urchin who’s only known hardship, it’s difficult to know where to start. In other words, when Chol Soo finally got handed a sling, he had absolutely no idea what to do with it.
Watch Free Chol Soo Lee:
Read about Col Soo’s prison memoir, Freedom Without Justice, the Prison Memoirs of Chol Soo Lee.
Free Chol Soo Lee Documentary
Premiered at Sundance 2022.
Released August 19, 2022 in UK and Ireland.
Julie Ha & Eugene Yi
Chol Soo Lee book by