I interviewed debut directors, Eugene and Julie, about their new feature film, Free Chol Soo Lee. This documentary chronicles the life and false imprisonment of Korean immigrant, Chol Soo Lee, and how the Korean-American community fought for his freedom.
This conversation took place during the Sundance London Film Festival on the 9th of June.
Carrie: So, Julie, this is your debut as a writer and director. Eugene, you’ve worked in the film industry as an editor and a production assistant, but this was seemingly your first time directing. How did you feel stepping into the role?
Julie: I personally feel like I stepped into it quite naively, and I’m actually glad because I think if I knew how hard the road would be to finish a feature film, [an] archival film, at that. I might’ve been too scared to try. So, in that sense, I think that helped. But yeah, it’s been a tremendous learning experience. The road has been long and hard, but it’s been incredibly awesome filming. It’s been an honour, actually, to work on this particular story which has [a] pretty personal meaning for us.
Carrie: What about you, Eugene?
Eugene: To build on what Julie said, there’s this psychological phenomenon called the planning fallacy. Which basically means you just don’t know what you’re getting into, but you think it’ll be easy to get done or doable at least. And so when we started six years ago, I thought it would be very much that. I mean, Julia and I had worked together on print journalism pieces in the Korean-American community, very sort of involved pieces about issues in our community for some time and we’d worked together quite well. So I thought, ‘Oh, this feels like a natural extension’.
And yes, I also approached it perhaps naively and not knowing what we all were getting into. But I think we’re really fortunate, to have been able to work with the team that we had because I think especially as independent filmmakers you’re so used to wearing so many hats that it becomes very easy to try and do everything yourself. And it becomes difficult at times to know when you do need to reach out and ask for help. Our incredible producers Su Kim, Jean Tsien, and Sona Jo, our editing team, which particularly for me was very important because editing and directing together, for me personally, I needed an outside perspective. So that I’d be able to see the film [in] a new role. And so Aldo Velasco and Jean Tsien, our editors, they’re just incredible to do that. And were truly masters of their craft.
Carrie: And what was it about Chol Soo Lee’s story that propelled you both that it had to be this for your directorial debuts?
Julie: Well, I guess we could get into our origin story. As Eugene was mentioning, [we worked] together for a Korean-American magazine. And so after that magazine folded, Eugene was saying he has always had one foot in journalism and one foot in filmmaking. And he’s like, ‘Let’s work on a film together, Julie!’ And I didn’t really have, honestly, a filmmaking ambition. But when we talked about that within that particular time, I couldn’t actually get this Chol Soo Lee story out of my head. I had attended the funeral for the main character, Chol See Lee, maybe about nine months earlier. And I felt such a heaviness in that space, in the funeral space, among the people who were mourning Chol Soo Lee. And, honestly, it was that heaviness that I think just stayed with me and made me feel like we needed to try to unpack that and see what was behind it.
I should backtrack a little, my personal connection in this film is that my journalism mentor was K.W. Lee, the investigative reporter for the film. I met him when I was 18 years old, and he inspired me to want to become a journalist. And so I’ve known about this story quite a long time, and Eugene also knows K.W. Lee, he was a journalism figure for him. But I remember seeing K.W. Lee at the funeral and he was in such anguish that he had outlived Chol Soo Lee and that so many people had worked so hard to save him and he died of tragedy.
And honestly, there was something even beyond grief that, I felt at the funeral. I was struck by how much there which included all these activists who had worked for years to free Chol Soo Lee, that they felt such a deep responsibility to him. Not only to free him, but I think they were regretful that he didn’t have a happier ending. That his life after his release was so hard. I think that kind of emotion, that depth of compassion for humanity struck me. As well as K.W. Lee at one point at the funeral stood up and was almost angry. And he said, ‘Why is this story about this landmark Asian-American social justice movement still underground? People don’t know about it. Why has it been lost to history?’
And so Eugene and I always shared a passion for telling complicated Asian-American stories with depth and nuance. And so he just felt like this was a story that we really had to dig into. And we had to excavate the truth about what happened and make sure that the story is not buried in history. It actually can have a tremendous impact today.
So we’ve got to work and it’s been a six-year journey.
Eugene: Six years later, literally!
Carrie: Yes, of course! Eugene, how much does your involvement and your passion for the story incorporate that?
Eugene: So, I can build on this question of why it’s unknown because even Chol Soo Lee would talk about how there are other cases in our communities, in the Asian-American communities, that are better known that happened at about the same time. The Vincent Chin case is one of them where a Chinese engineer in Detroit was murdered by two out-of-work auto workers in Detroit based off of racial animus as well. And so cases like that are better known, and Chol Soo Lee himself would often talk about how his case was messier. [It] involved criminality on his own part and there was not the happy ending that everybody hoped it would have.
But I think there’s something really powerful in the fact that it is a more complicated story because if it was just a story about the movement, then it would be a story of resistance. It’d be a powerful story, of course, but because there’s this whole other chapter, it becomes this story of resilience. How, despite the pain and disappointment that everybody, including Chol Soo Lee, felt for not being able to live up to what so many hoped for him, there is still a way for people to get through, to find a way to stay connected, to really honour the movement and everything that happened while recognizing all of our flaws, all of our humanity, ultimately. And I think because that humanity is still legible and evident in this story, it just became this really powerful, powerful vehicle for us to continue the kinds of stories that we’ve always sort of been passionate about telling.
Carrie: And just to wrap up as well – this time has gone by so quickly! – are stories of injustice something that you want to touch on in your future work? Or is it fairly open at the moment?
Eugene: This is always the hardest question because we spent our careers devoted to these kinds of stories and we’ve worked in different media. So I think there’s always this question of what’s next. That’s very difficult to answer.
There are so many stories within our communities like this, and so many stories that are unknown, that deserve to be told. There are definitely some things that I’m working on, that we’re working on, that we have in our minds, that might be there. But, you know, this has been a six-year Odyssey for us, and it’s just such an important story [that] came about because of the community in so many ways; the community of people who helped Chol Soo Lee, the community of film professionals and incredible artists who work with us to bring this film to completion. It really feels like the most important thing to do right now is to make sure that this one has the most impact it possibly can.
Carrie: Yes, of course.
Julie: I think one common theme, I don’t know for sure, but we do share a passion for Asian-American stories and making sure that they’re told. Because even to this day it still feels like you’re not allowed to be seen and heard in our full human context. And so we definitely share a spectral calling to do that, to make sure our stories are told by members of our community who are invested in, again, trying to tell the stories with nuance and depth. I feel like there’s a certain lens that we might bring to it that’s different. So, I think whatever we work on in the future, I sense that might be the common theme.
Carrie: Amazing. Well, it’s been absolutely wonderful to talk with you today and I hope the end of the press odyssey goes very well! Honour to meet you both.
Julie: Thank you so much.
Eugene: Thank you so much. It’s great talking to you.
Free Chol Soo Lee premiered at Sundance London Film Festival in June 2022. It will be released in the States on the 12th of August and in cinemas in the UK on the 19th of August.