RUB & TUG directed by Soo Lyu, written by Lyu and Edward Stanulis, produced by Stanulis, with Don McKellar, Lindy Booth, Kira Clavell and Tara Spencer-Nairn. 90 minutes. A Willow Pictures production. A Seville Pictures release. See review below. Tuesday, September 10, 9:30 pm CUMBERLAND 2; Saturday, September 14, 1 pm UPTOWN 3. Rating: NNNNN
Soo Lyu tilts her head toward me and confesses the obvious."At first it was definitely the sex," she says. "The fact that they provide hand jobs as part of the service. "You gotta be kidding me' -- that was my first response."
Like so many film grads, Lyu cast around for just the right subject for her feature debut. Then she met a man who owned a massage parlour. He also ran a coin laundry, but it was the peculiar dynamics of a Toronto rub 'n' tug that caught Lyu's interest.
The result is a film that works the She's Gotta Have It tip: a sexy plot, a comic approach and strong women front and centre, with the whole thing kept to a lean budget. If the film falters as much as it succeeds, it also continues a decisive shift in indie Canadian cinema. Lyu is part of a new generation with a much keener eye for the marketplace.
This is an ambitious, strategic debut. It's as savvy as the women who inspired it.
In researching Rub & Tug, Lyu found women -- Canadian, Russian or Korean like herself -- who earn up to $10,000 a month, bond with their co-workers and often graduate to owning their own places. "They're street- smart," Lyu says. "They know what they're doing.
"I think these women really accept the fact that this is a job, it's work. They're afraid that people from outside don't really understand that."
Lyu became especially intrigued when she heard the owner complain that his employees held all the power. Popular girls often earn more than their bosses, Lyu says.
"It made sense to me. There are so many sex workers out there. They can't all be victims."
She'd found her story. So before sitting down to write Rub & Tug with Edward Stanulis -- who also produced -- she did her research, talking to several women in the business.
"I came in with the expectation that I would find sobbing drama," she admits. "We're taught to believe that. You know, how they fell into this bad, evil world, and how the clients are exploiting these women. But I found the biggest laughs. That was the biggest surprise to me. They have a great sense of humour, they're smart and they can manipulate men just like that."
Of course, the men make it easy, which is part of the film's comedy.
"The sex part of this industry is really funny," Lyu says, cracking up at the thought of it. "There's an inherent humour in it. These guys could jerk off at home, but instead they choose to go and pay someone to do it for them."
Armed with a combination of sex and humour, Lyu and Stanulis knew they'd found their approach.
"We thought, well, if these women don't feel they're victims, if they don't want to be dwelling on a certain part of their past or their life, why should we?" explains Lyu. "What they want is to be strong, to survive.
"I had so much fun with the girls, and I developed some good friendships during the research. I wanted the audience to feel what I felt. Have fun about it!"
It's clear listening to Lyu that, as removed as her life is from that of a rub 'n' tug girl, she identifies with their spirit.
"There's a lot of that desire to get out there and really succeed," she says, practically pumping her fist. "That, I respect so much. They want a change in their lives. They're not just sitting not doing anything about it."
Nor has Lyu. She grew up in Korea and studied her way into the prestigious Ewha Women's University. When I say it's a really good school, she blurts, "It is! I worked really hard to get in!"
After graduating in political science, she went to work writing advertising copy. But it didn't take.
"I was in Korea thinking, "I can't do this 9-to-5 bullshit. I'm dying here.'"
So she joined her brothers in Canada and enrolled in Ryerson's film program.
And she continues to set her sights high. Ask her for the name of a filmmaker she admires and right away she cites Stanley Kubrick.
"He's a good role model for every filmmaker," she says.
"I really respect the level of control he had. I'm not talking just financially, but also he just had extensive knowledge in every department.
"He knew a lot about filmmaking -- he knew everything! I just find that very powerful."
But even as she praises Kubrick's control and admits a fondness for science fiction, Lyu's bottom line is the audience.
"My first film viewing experience at a theatre was Star Wars," she recalls.
"When I went with my brothers I was really young, and the place was packed. I was only able to see the tip of the screen. It was subtitled, and I didn't understand English back then. I did not know what was going on onscreen.
"But I felt the presence of the audience. They were cheering, they were booing, they were really with it. I'd never felt anything like it. I got a chill. I thought, "This is a powerful thing.' That stuck in me, that memory, feeling the power of the audience.
"Audiences kind of like formula films," Lyu continues, "because they expect certain things to happen. So I think it's good to explore genre films. Start within the boundaries, where it's familiar, so we can expand it, give it a twist, give it a different look, a different point of view.
"Rub & Tug," she beams, "is exactly that."email@example.com
RUB & TUG
Soo Lyu makes her feature debut on the She's Gotta Have It tip, with a comedy about sex and strong women. Lindy Booth, Kira Clavell and Tara Spencer-Nairn play workers in a massage parlour where the boss is at their mercy, the cops are at the door and the johns are begging for full release. For prurient eyes, there's precious little rubbing, and no tugging at all. Instead, Lyu makes a sex-trade version of Nine To Five, with Don McKellar in the Dabney Coleman role as the new manager trying to take charge of the girls. Rub & Tug shoots for giddy office comedy, but a stronger, more insightful film can be glimpsed at the end of each weak laugh.