Julie Ha on Keeping a Movement Alive in “Free Chol Soo Lee”

When the decision was made to bring the voice of Chol Soo Lee in to narrate his own story in “Free Chol Soo Lee,” it may have been the only way forward for co-directors Julie Ha and Eugene Yi when Lee had often been denied this opportunity in his own life after being wrongfully imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit, yet it created a considerable challenge when there was no way for Lee, who passed away in 2014, to speak to his own experience, other than the words he left behind in his journals. For the two journalists-turned-filmmakers, a voiceover could be unethical if handled improperly, but their producer Su Kim had come up with a novel solution, having recently attended an event for the documentary series “College Behind Bars,” featuring Sebastian Yoon, a Korean-American whose own time in prison mirrored the experience of Lee.

“There was an honesty and a genuineness and a quality about him that for her reminded her of Chol Soo Lee, so she told us, “I feel like he could be the voice of Chol Soo Lee,” Ha remembers. “Eugene and I ended up watching the series ourselves and it was like ‘Oh wow, this young man is quite remarkable. I could see what Su was talking about,’ and I think he was surprised to be approached by a Korean-American to talk about a story that involved an incarcerated Korean-American [because] as he did different press and had different discussions around carceral issues around the film, he said oftentimes he was the lone Asian, so he was open to actually talking with us.”

But as Ha was surprised to find out, Yoon also was open to taking on the part when he knew who was asking.

“In that [initial] e-mail to Su, [Sebastian] mentions, “Oh, by the way, say hi to Julie Ha. I used to subscribe to the magazine she edited and she published my letter to the editor. It was the highlight of my year,” says Ha, who was the editor-in-chief at KoreAm Journal from 2011 to 2014. “And when she shared that with me, I remembered there was a handful of incarcerated Korean-Americans who used to write us letters and subscribe to our magazine, so I looked and it was just the most beautiful letter from 10 years ago [where] he said, ‘Prison could be such a lonely depressing environment and reading the magazine gives him some light and a sense of community.’ And then he said that he had this wish that our magazine could tell our own community that there are others like him, young people who don’t have support and guidance and they’re making bad decisions and engaging in dangerous lifestyles, so he wanted to see if our magazine could deliver that message that we’re not all model minorities. When I think about it, 10 years later, we are helping to fulfill that mission that he had with this film.”

It was only part of what Ha and Yi were able to fulfill with “Free Chol Soo Lee,” which chronicles the response to Lee’s arrest and a life sentence that was ultimately reduced to 10 years after the Asian American community rose up to draw attention to his case, a murder in the streets of San Francisco that he made an easy scapegoat for as a non-English speaking immigrant. Ha and Yi track how this was merely the culmination of an array of injustices that occurred to Lee, who had been expelled from school and shuttled from one juvenile detention center to another before being placed in a psych ward simply because of the communication issues that arose from being unable to speak English, and while there was no support for him during his matriculation in a predominantly white cultural system, Asian American journalists and activists rallied around him, raising awareness and money for his defense.

It’s an effort that has continued to this day when much of what independent coverage there was of Lee’s case has been tucked away in garages and attics, vital evidence of what can be achieved by a galvanized collective movement as well as what happens when that energy inevitably dissipates and threatens to be lost in the grander historical record. Ha and Yi weren’t about to let that latter possibility happen and after unearthing mountains of material that were compiled by generations of before them, “Free Chol Soo Lee” is as moving for ensuring historical recognition of Lee as it to acknowledge the ongoing need for his memory to be kept alive. In advance of a special nationwide one-night theatrical event on August 17th, I spoke with Ha at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival about what it felt like to be part of this storytelling tradition and how “Free Chol Soo Lee” adjusted to the times it was being made in, pivoting to an archival-driven documentary after the pandemic set in, as well as giving Lee a voice for the first time.

How did this come about?

I had actually no aspirations to make a film before, but my friend and co-director Eugene Yi and I had worked together before as journalists for a Korean-American magazine [where] I was an editor. Eugene was a really amazing writer and we always enjoyed collaborating together, so when the magazine was folding, Eugene mentioned to me, “Let’s make a film together because he always had one foot in journalism and one foot in filmmaking. If it had been any other time, I think I would’ve been like, “What? You make a film.” [laughs] But less than a year earlier, I attended the funeral of Chol Soo Lee to write an obituary for a magazine as well as to see my mentor K.W. Lee, the journalist because I was worried how he was doing in his grief. It was a very modest Buddhist funeral and inside the temple space, it’s really just K.W. Lee and some of the activists that had come to Chol Soo’s aid. It was not that many people and I was so struck by what some of them were saying, [like] they didn’t do enough for him to save him. They had devoted six years of their lives to freeing him from prison, some of them helped him after he reentered society and was struggling and they said he did more for them than they did for him.

K.W. Lee was in so much anguish, he just stood up at one point and made his indictment of the criminal justice system, expressing his lament that this story had been forgotten and this landmark movement had been buried in history. I just felt a heaviness and the feeling just stayed with me all that time. I couldn’t help but feel like this story needed a release, so almost a year later when Eugene and I were talking about making a film, I was like this story really needs to be told. We both share a passion for telling complex Asian stories with nuance and depth, so we just knew we had to tell it.

From what I understand, this wasn’t planned to be as archival-driven as it ultimately became, but what was it like to pivot?

The pandemic definitely solidified that direction. We did think about doing recreations, for example, but we decided to take an abundance of caution. We didn’t want to risk anyone’s lives. We didn’t do additional interviews either during the pandemic because many of our subjects were older, so it really did force us to embrace our archival identity, which was a really good decision looking back. We hired a great archival producer Brian Becker, who along with our archival team, really helped us find some incredible footage including that amazing K.W. Lee radio ad from the ‘80s, and embracing our archival identity made the film more immersive, taking you there to that time period.

Besides that wonderful K.W. Lee ad, was there any piece of archival that broke this open for you or you couldn’t believe you got your hands on?

We were just really lucky to get all the archival footage of Chol Soo Lee and we have to credit former newscaster/journalist Sandra Gin, who made the first documentary about Chol Soo Lee, back in 1983, which ends with his release from prison. Had she not made that film and recognized the importance of this story at that time, we wouldn’t have a film. And there were others. K.W. Lee and the activists held onto a lot of the material from those days, whether they be letters from Chol Soo Lee or trial evidence boards that was just such rich archival. We also contacted Asian-Americans who were working as TV news journalists at that time other than Sandra Jin and they found old video tapes actually in their garages and their attics that proved also very useful to us, so it was an amazing process of discovery. Eugene often likes to say it’s this underground archive that these Asian-American journalists and documentarians kept and that was such a gift to us because if they didn’t do that then maybe we wouldn’t have a film and that history could be lost.

And Ranko Yamada knew Chol Soo before any of this transpired. What was it like getting to talking to her?

She’s just a remarkable human being, and for both Eugene and me, it’s been so special to get to know her personally. We’ve actually become quite close to her over the years, and as you said, she met Chol Soo Lee when she was 19 years old and it’s not like they were close friends, but when she heard a year later that he had been arrested for a Chinatown gang murder, she knew that wasn’t right and he wasn’t that type of person and she told us that if he had a support network of people who could help him, she doesn’t think she would’ve gotten so involved. But she knew he did not, so she said she had to do something to help him. We didn’t put it in the film, but she actually tried to approach 10 different attorneys at that time before there was a movement to get somebody to help Chol Soo Lee [because] she knew he needed a strong defense attorney, but she didn’t have enough money to pay them and she tried to do her own private fundraisers. She said even the progressive cause attorneys turned her down because they said this case isn’t political enough, so when she couldn’t do anything to help him legally, she still, as she says in the film, “All I could do is be his friend,” so I think her letters to Chol Soo Lee or the care packages she’d send to him while he was in prison were really a lifeline for him for a while. Eugene and I just feel so privileged just to know her and what an honor it is to showcase in our film.

What was it like recording the voiceover?

Eugene and I knew we wanted to tell Chol Soo’s story from his perspective and to have agency in our film and to be able to tell his own story in his own words, but obviously we never had a chance to interview him ourselves. We tried very, very hard to immerse ourselves in everything Chol Soo left behind in terms of his interviews, in terms of his letters, his handwritten notes, his memoirs, and the private phone calls he had with K.W. Lee in the 2000s. Still, we always felt really insecure, like are we really capturing Chol Soo Lee? Are we doing him justice? That nagged at us. When we started working with Sebastian, he saw a rough cut of the film, he was quite emotional. He said he could connect with Chol Soo Lee on so many levels, and we sent him Chol Son’s memoirs, we shared with him transcripts of Chol Soo’s interviews, so he actually collaborated with us to develop what Chol Soo Lee would say because we already had a script but he helped us flesh it out more and develop it even more. He emphasized to us that Chol Soo Lee wasn’t just confronting physical violence in prison, but also loneliness, depression, isolation, so he wanted to make sure we incorporated that into our scenes – the dehumanization that happens with things like strip searches or even how valuable and important it was to even receive a single letter while in prison.

Sebastian actually said to us because Chol Soo’s no longer with us, he felt a responsibility to make sure that people could open their hearts and minds to Chol Soo and wouldn’t be so judgmental of him, but could be compassionate when they looked at his story. One of the things we want to do with this movie is open up conversations about our incarcerated brothers and sisters to make people in our community realize when we hear about issues of policing in communities of color or criminal justice reform, those aren’t just other communities’ issues, those are our issues too and we need to really acknowledge that.

When this has been six years of your life, what’s it been like getting this out into the world?

It’s been really amazing. There were times where I know I personally wondered if I could ever be at peace with the finished film because the story always felt too big, and it had such importance to our community and such universal human themes. But when we got toward the end, I remember seeing the master archival footage cut and I was in tears. I was just so proud of what our entire team accomplished and I really want to emphasize the collectiveness of it. It’s not just Eugene and I, but our producing team of Su Kim and Jean Tsien, a producer who also had a hand in editing, and we also had Sona Jo, a producer in South Korea and a wonderful film editor Aldo Velasco, who was a joy to work with, because you need that really strong team when you’re a first-time filmmaker.

I’ll also say even though it’s good you have that feeling about your own film, but when you release it, you wonder what are the people who are portrayed in the movie and part of the movement going to think? They’ve really embraced it and felt like it captured Chol Soo Lee and and I think for many of them, they got to understand Chol Soo Lee’s story in a really deep way. They got to see all he had to overcome just to live, let alone be a symbol for a movement. It was quite moving when K.W. Lee said, “At last Chol Soo Lee is free” when he watched the film. That’s so profound because that’s what we were trying to do with the film, to free Chol Soo Lee.

When I spoke earlier about that heaviness in the funeral space, I thought for a whilethe heaviness was the regret of the activists and the pain of my mentor K.W. Lee, but when I look back now, I think about it now as more the heaviness of Chol Soo Lee and his spirit and maybe him not being at peace because he knows all these people who dedicated their lives to helping him are living with this ache. We concluded that Chol Soo Lee said he wanted to honor these activists even after everything that happened and even though the movement was quite a heavy burden for him to carry. He seemed to come to a peace towards the end of his life that he still wanted to give back and he wanted to honor them and he also thought that if people know about this movement, a powerful legacy could be created, so we want this film to ensure that legacy. It doesn’t have to end 40 years ago. A whole new generation of people dedicated to the public good came out of the Chol Soo Lee movement because they were college students and people in their twenties and they were so empowered by this victory that they went on to defense attorneys and public defenders like Jeff Adachi, and advocates for youth and nonprofit leaders, so you have a whole generation that was inspired to do incredible things for the public good. If we tell the story anew now, hopefully we can ensure a lasting and meaningful legacy for Chol Soo Lee now and we need it more than ever.

“Free Chol Soo Lee” is currently open in New York at the IFC Center and will have a nationwide one-night screening on August 17th. It will open on August 19th in San Francisco at the Roxie and August 26th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal.