Sook-Yin Lee shocker in Cannes
CBC host creatures a sensation with her starring role in the graphic, taboo-busting film 'Shortbus'
BRIAN D. JOHNSON | Jun 02, 2006
Sook-Yin Lee turned down the diamonds and the dress. For her red-carpet premiere at the recent Cannes Film Festival, sponsors had asked her to wear a Versace gown and a fortune in gems. "They take you to a secret room," recalls Lee, "where diamonds are being thrown around like baubles, and they give you a bodyguard if you wear them." But Lee wanted no part of it. It was not her style. Besides, she was attracting enough attention as it was. Canada had no feature films competing in Cannes this year. But the woman known back home as the whimsical host of CBC Radio's Definitely Not the Opera -- and a former MuchMusic VJ -- created a sensation with her starring role in the taboo-busting American movie Shortbus. Cast as Sofia, a woman in search of her first orgasm, Lee performs graphic, non-simulated intercourse onscreen. She also spends much of the movie masturbating in a wild variety of scenarios -- finally achieving the(unfaked)orgasm that serves as the story's cosmic climax.
Controversy first erupted in 2003 when the CBC tried to prevent Lee from taking the role if she wanted to keep her day job on the radio. The network relented under pressure, after the likes of Yoko Ono, Francis Ford Coppola and REM's Michael Stipe rallied to her support. Now the CBC may wonder just what it agreed to. No one was prepared for just how graphic Shortbus would be. It offers the most kaleidoscopic carnival of hard-core action ever seen in a film not meant as pornography. It includes an oral feat of autoerotic yoga, a three-way pretzel of gay sex that has a guy belting the Star-Spangled Banner into another guy's butt, and a scene of semen landing on what looks like a Jackson Pollock -- a literal commingling of art and porn.
But what's most shocking about Shortbus is that so much sex is shown without a soupçon of exploitation. Written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell(Hedwig and the Angry Inch), the movie doesn't even aim to arouse; it's more like a comic pop confection, a satire with a soft centre of peace, love and understanding -- as one character puts it, "like the sixties with less hope." And as a post-9/11 gauntlet thrown down against fear and American puritanism, it's a minor landmark.
The movie, and Lee, were warmly embraced in Cannes. At the midnight premiere, a crowd of 2,300 offered a prolonged standing ovation. Legitimate North American distributors fought over the right to distribute the film, despite the headaches it will pose with U.S. censors. And Lee was being hailed as a delightful new talent. Screen International, a trade publication, called her "a real revelation" and praised her "deft comic timing" and "gritty emotional intensity."
The day after the premiere, Lee sits at a beachfront table at the American Pavilion, still reeling from the attention. She's wearing an aqua cotton dress, and around her throat is a frayed thread of blue rope, which she'd worn to the premiere instead of the diamonds. "I found it in the fish market in Senegal," she says. "It was used to tie up a fish." As for the dress, she's not used to wearing one. "I didn't realize that nude pantyhose have gone the way of the dinosaur, and there I was in nude pantyhose yesterday, and somebody said, 'People haven't been wearing nude pantyhose for years, Sook-Yin.' This is a liberation, I'm happy to hear about it."
When Lee first hit the CBC airwaves in 2002, drafted in the drive to reach a younger demographic, some older listeners felt Peter Gzowski would be spinning in his grave. It's true she can sound like a space cadet, or a 12-year-old. But there's a sense of level-headed resilience behind the childlike whimsy -- and a fierce independence born of necessity.
The second-oldest of four sisters, Lee grew up in a strict Roman Catholic Chinese-Canadian family -- culturally isolated in a white suburb of Vancouver. Her father, an engineer, was from Hong Kong. Her mother, who came from mainland China, was a borderline paranoid schizophrenic who spent her own adolescence in and out of mental institutions, brutalized by shock therapy. When Lee was 15, her family was shattered by the bitter breakup of her parents' marriage. She dropped out of school, left home, shaved her head, formed an art rock band, and has been playing with multimedia ever since.
Lee's big break came in 1995 when she was discovered by Citytv founder Moses Znaimer. She'd made a video with music and skits that involved a wig and some squirt guns. "A friend of mine sent me her tape," says Znaimer, "and within minutes it was clear that she was fearless. She would do anything, and go anywhere, to make her artistic point." Thrown in front of the cameras, Lee learned on the job, and spent six years at MuchMusic as a host and VJ. Since then she's recorded three albums, appeared in episodic TV, acted in a few small movies -- and has now written a feature film that she plans to direct.
But with Shortbus, Lee has taken a plunge that she knows will carry heavy repercussions, professional and personal. "I only started speaking with my mum again after being excommunicated for a number of years. I don't want to drop this bomb on her just yet. She just knows I'm in the south of France -- on business. My dad knows I'm in a movie, and he's excited about it. But I don't want him to see it. I don't want my dad to be watching me have an orgasm."
Lee had appeared in Mitchell's cult hit Hedwig and the Angry Inch. But he was surprised she wanted to risk the Shortbus role. "Even though her work pushes the envelope," he says, "she's in some ways a conservative, reserved person. She's like me. I was brought up very Catholic, and that's why I made this film. You know what they say about Catholic girls."
The cast worked on the movie for over two years, developing the script out of improvisations. "We'd roll around in the nude in rehearsals, but we didn't want to consummate it until the actual day," Lee recalls. "I remember arriving on the set. I was scared stiff. I had a good talking to myself. 'You signed on to this. Don't be a whiner. Just throw yourself into it with disregard to who's watching.' "
As Sofia, Lee portrays a frustrated relationship counsellor who persuades her husband, Rob(Rafael Barker)that they should blow open their marriage by joining an underground salon in Brooklyn that revels in polyamory. The opening sequence features them engaged in an energetic bout of intercourse. "I wore a female condom," she explains. "They wanted to make sure it was safe sex, and it would look weird if my husband was wearing a condom. I didn't even know there was a female condom. Female condoms are huge. They're these massive amounts of rubber. It was like being under the Big Top. Or the Big Top was inside of me."
Sofia's orgasm quest becomes a comedy of errors, with cute gimmicks that range from a sensory deprivation tank to a remote-controlled vibrating egg. But when it came time to shoot the Big O, Lee insisted on making it real. "I would be a terrible fake orgasm person," she says. "I asked for a locked-off shot, of just my head. I asked everybody to leave the room. It didn't take too long." And yes, batteries were required.
What Lee found most "nerve-wracking" about it all is that she had a boyfriend at the time, a cinematographer. But she was more anxious about it than he was. "He said, 'Go make some good art.' I'm not with him anymore. I was dumped the same week my cat died."
When Lee talks about her life, she seems blithely detached from it. She admits, "I often look at my life as if I'm a guinea pig in my own science project." Her career, too, resembles an uncontrolled experiment. But for someone with little evidence of showbiz ego, she has cultivated some impressive contacts, including Coppola, who's been an email pal ever since he wrote her a letter of support. "He asked for an autographed photo," she says. "It was so cute. He sent me a script of a movie he was working on and asked me for feedback. And he asked for my music."
Coppola was in Cannes as executive producer of Marie Antoinette, a movie directed by his daughter, Sofia. After the premiere, the Coppola clan held court at a lavish party on the beach -- a homage to Versailles decadence with towers of prawns sculpted like topiary shrubs, quails with their claws on, endless champagne and fireworks worthy of Apocalypse Now. When asked about Lee, Francis Coppola said, "I know her mostly through her music. She's a wonderful singer." He seemed hesitant to weigh in with a review of her performance in Shortbus, but said the movie "was very sweet for what it was."
Lee had declined to attend the Marie Antoinette bash. She wanted to hang with her Shortbus crew at the "Queer Lounge" party just down the beach, an informal crush with a cash bar. The next morning I asked her to send me some of her music. She didn't have any on hand, but offered to drop by my hotel and sing some a cappella. With the businesslike aplomb of someone who has spent her life auditioning -- and without a trace of flirtation -- she sang into the bathroom doorway, asking me not to watch. Coppola was right. Lee has an enchanting voice. She sang two of her own songs, something haunting in Japanese and a bluesy ballad in English. Then she ran off to be interviewed by Entertainment Tonight.
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