I used to be a bit disoriented when the plot of Free Chol Soo Lee shifted solely 20 minutes in, as a journalist near-definitively assessed that the eponymous prisoner was harmless of the homicide for which he was serving a life sentence. It felt like issues have been transferring too rapidly. However the documentary doesn’t abide by the same old guidelines of true crime. Administrators Julie Ha and Eugene Li are much less within the meticulous particulars of legislation enforcement and the authorized course of than within the private and social impacts of institutional racism, and particularly incarceration. The sequence of occasions by which Chol Soo Lee was wrongfully convicted within the mid ’70s is laid out, after all. It’s additionally stuffed with infuriating particulars about how San Francisco police and prosecutors railroaded him after deciding on him as their perp based mostly on defective investigating and racial profiling early of their investigation. However there isn’t any play-by-play recap of the method that movies like these too usually resort to, which appears designed to enchantment extra to morbidly minded beginner detectives than to any actual sense of compassion for the human beings concerned.
This method is in keeping with the movie’s broader issues concerning the thornier points of Lee’s story, which a extra conventionally minded documentary may be content material to brush over. Regardless of his case spurring a pan-Asian activist motion that resulted in his retrial and eventual exoneration, Lee continued to battle after his launch. Turning into a trigger célèbre doesn’t make it easier to discover and hold a job, or purge the trauma of incarceration. Round half of the previously incarcerated will relapse indirectly. Lee doesn’t have a clear, sentimentally inspirational “redemption” arc that can permit viewers to stroll away in the end feeling good. But it is a function, not a bug, as a result of a sentimental method dangers dropping sight of the basic injustice right here — not simply in Lee’s particular case, however within the broader establishments underlying it.
Due to this, Free Chol Soo Lee could be a surprisingly laborious watch, regardless of it not lingering on too many gory or upsetting particulars. In some respects, the matter of factness with which it relates how Lee felt he’d already died numerous occasions earlier than his dying in 2014 makes it much more upsetting. In his absence, the movie employs an actor to learn his written reflections on his experiences in voiceover, joined by a panoply of firsthand accounts from individuals who knew Lee and have been a part of the motion to free him. There are some components I want the movie had gone into higher element — one sequence concerning the group’s response to a whitewashing fiction movie adaptation of the case, starring James Woods, might have been a lot longer, a probably wealthy and incisive piece of media critique about actuality versus its commodification. Nonetheless, arriving at a time of elevated anti-Asian racism within the US and persevering with discourse concerning the inhumanity of its jail system, the film is a powerful historic intestine punch.
Free Chol Soo Lee is now enjoying in choose theaters.