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[Sundance ’22] ‘Free Chol Soo Lee’ review: How a story about a Korean immigrant resonates today

A complex man and a broken system.

Free Chol Soo Lee seems like it is going to be about a Korean immigrant being wrongfully imprisoned. The Sundance Film Festival world premiere covers that, but it is also a very personal story. While weaving this tale, it also says a lot about America. In 1973, Lee is convicted of murder and placed in jail for the next decade. The conviction became a galvanizing moment in Asian American history.

The documentary neatly ties its story into modern day America’s prison and justice system. Racial injustice and the country’s rush to incarcerate are themes of Free Chol Soo Lee. As is stated in the film, it takes a person spending a decade in jail, a worldwide movement, and the best lawyers in the country to overturn a conviction that is clearly wrong. It is a disheartening watch that is also a reminder of how  little things have changed.

Free Chol Soo Lee is also a story about affecting change. The groups that came out in support of Chol Soo Lee are similar to the movements that represent underrepresented people today. The archival footage from the documentary could just have easily been something out of today’s news cycle. It is inspirational to see how so many different people centered around helping one man.

A story with long reaching effects.

For his part, Lee was grateful to everyone up until his death in 2014. Even in his darkest moments, he kept a positive demeanor for those who championed him. Free Chol Soo Lee does not just paint him in a positive light, however. Directors Julie Ha and Eugene Yi paint a picture of a complex man. This is most evident in the latter part of the documentary that covers the latter parts of Lee’s life. 

Free Chol Soo Lee is an individual story with long reaching effects. The story of a minority being railroaded by a legal system controlled by race and power is not a new one, unfortunately. Its effects on the Asian community helps the documentary stand apart. It is emotional and inspirational to all people.

The Sundance Film Festival is online January 20- January 30. Tickets can be purchased and a full lineup can be found here.

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