Sex with strangers and other tales from Sook-Yin Lee

Globe and Mail 

Sook-Yin Lee: Her movie found its roots in her adolescence, when she found a community of fellow artists.

Guy Dixon

Tuesday, Jun. 22, 2010

There’s a secret to understanding Sook-Yin Lee.

She actually cares what other people think of her. A lot.

This might come as a surprise to anyone who saw her masturbate in the film Shortbus. Or appear naked in the short film she directed and starred in for Toronto Stories. Or those who listen to her unconventional CBC Radio show Definitely Not the Opera. Or follow her presence on the highly uncommercial fringe of indie rock. Her new film Year of the Carnivore, however, is the first feature film she’s directed, and that makes it personal.

The film was inspired by Lee’s teenage years in and around Vancouver’s Chinatown and Strathcona neighbourhoods, when she was a socially awkward young woman trying to impress a young guitarist by becoming more sexually experienced. “There are people who are going to embrace this movie, and there are people who are going to deride this film. And it profoundly affects me!” Lee says, sitting on the grass outside the CBC building in Toronto on a warm afternoon.

“It profoundly affects me,” she repeats, “and I wish it did not. I wish I could just go, ‘That is just their interpretation,’ and not feel hemmed in by any definition stated by anyone else. And also let [my own definition] of myself move. Do you know what I mean?”

Some artists pretend they don’t care about labels attached to their public personae, or about turning themselves into a brand. Lee cringes at the idea.

“It sucks to be Ronald McDonald! I’d hate to be, like, this walking brand, ‘Hey, I’m Sook-Yin Lee!,” she says, holding up her arms like a marionette and shouting in a mock-obnoxious voice.

Lee began fighting limitations and being pigeonholed at 15, when she left home and the confines of suburban life in North Vancouver’s Lynn Valley.

“It was a very exciting time. I broke out of a very, in some ways, traditional family. I hung out at the mall. I watched a lot of television. And suddenly in the middle of my parents’ really messy break-up, I jettisoned out and found freedom,” she recalls. “And it was so exciting. It coincided with my discovery of punk rock and existential writing. The only punk guy in my entire suburb: We became friends, and he introduced me to all these great bands and stuff.

“Then I found myself an orphan with a lot of freedom. I was a very socially awkward teenager, unable to speak verbally and very shy. I found myself always expressing myself through painting and art. These were very meaningful and cathartic expressions for me. And suddenly I found myself in the company of a number of other artists.”

It’s that period which was the genesis for her film Year of the Carnivore. When preparing the actors for their roles in Shortbus, director John Cameron Mitchell asked the cast to make personal videos about love. Lee wanted to explore the story she told in her video about her cluelessness back then about love and her body – which she tried to address by having sex with strangers in a number of befuddled ways.

Lee embellished the script with many fictional details, often for comedic effect, but the essence of the young woman’s confusion resembles what Lee went through. “I think with [the film’s lead character], it was more like looking at a relationship with a fella, and being in a quandary about what it is to be a woman. I still feel that. I don’t quite comfortably fit into what seems like the culturally prescribed gender roles. And sometimes when I’m faced by a majority of people who fit [in] better, I feel, like, ‘What’s wrong with me?’”

She’s currently working on other scripts about relationships and identity. “I am challenging this notion of what makes me,” she says. “This attempt to define self seems so slippery.”

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