SHORTBUS written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, with Sook-Yin Lee, PJ DeBoy, Paul Dawson and Lindsay Beamish. 102 minutes.
SHORTBUS PREMIERE PARTY AND CONCERT at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), September 10 at 10 pm, featuring Mitchell, Lee, Gentleman Reg, Kids on TV and others. $25, $100(VIP). 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
If Sook-Yin Lee ever needs to fill out a job application - not a likely scenario, I know - the phrase "good communicator" should be near the top of that resumé.
The multi-talented artist's incapable of giving a simple yes or no answer. She weaves around subjects, filling in details, illustrating points with mock voices and a song or two, anything to help get her ideas across. And she speaks clearly and directly. If she says a word, she doesn't mumble, she commits to it.
It's a skill that comes in handy in her job as the whimsical and genial host of CBC Radio's Saturday-afternoon pop culture show, Definitely Not The Opera.
And it's a skill that pretty much saved her job a couple of years ago when she was criticized for her participation in John Cameron Mitchell's sexually explicit film Shortbus.
In the Mother Corp's biggest pre-The One blunder, the network threatened to fire her if she continued with the movie, a graphic exploration of post-9/11 sex and sensibility.
The notorious e-mail campaign Lee launched in which artists as diverse as Francis Ford Coppola, Yoko Ono and Julianne Moore came to her defence made her bosses back down.
Now, after the film's successful debut at Cannes, its upcoming festival screenings and early October release, that disagreement seems like an unpleasant but necessary tiff.
"It was similar to coming out to your parents," says Lee in her cosy Kensington Market home, which exudes the laid-back, arty vibe you'd expect from a woman with a CV that includes MuchMusic VJ and Bob's Your Uncle lead singer (she's now with the band Slan). Art and photographs line the walls; books, CDs and the odd brightly coloured shoe are strewn on the floor; musical instruments look like they're actually played.
"At first they're resistant, they don't understand, they're confused, they think it's wrong and they try to change you. But it requires communication and being able to show where you're coming from. To their credit, it was finally, "Okay, we understand.' In the end, they allowed me to do the movie without any strings."
The CBC needn't have worried. In fact, this controversy should boost interest among its hoped-for young demo. Shortbus is an assured and playful look at sex and intimacy. The title refers to a fictional New York sex club frequented by the film's questing interconnected characters, who include Lee's Sophia, a married sex therapist who's never had an orgasm.
After you get over the initial hump of seeing real naked people having real naked sex (we're talking hard-ons, cum and, yes, Lee actually does climax during the film's climax), you become engrossed in the relationships and the stories. Soon, seeing these characters reveal their feelings and needs becomes more shocking than anything they might do with their bodies.
"I was interested in the project because I'm still at odds with issues of trust, intimacy, love, connection and sexuality," says Lee, looking appropriately waif-like in a blue summer dress. "Those are all conundrums for me. I'm probably more uptight than most people about stuff like that."
She's the first to point out her contradictory nature. "Typical Gemini," she laughs.
"I've always worn my heart on my sleeve and communicated stuff that most people don't," she says. "But I force myself to do that because on one level I'm extremely shy. It's not that I'm an exhibitionist. I think something was stifled before, so I've had to push myself to deal with these fears."
You don't have to be a rocket scientist to connect the shadow of the big authority figure of the CBC and Lee's parents, who divorced when she was 15.
"My family was wonderful and horrible," she candidly admits. "On one level, as a child I was encouraged to express myself, but what happened in my family clogged me up. That's when I started to express myself through storytelling, painting and music, all of which saved me."
The character of Sophia, she says, came from deep inside, inspired by her geeky childhood in a Vancouver suburb where she was one of a handful of Asian-Canadian kids. The character emerged after more than a year of improvisations with the rest of the cast, which included trust exercises, whiffle ball games and routine AIDS tests.
"Something compelled me toward that story, and I created enough stuff around her so that I didn't feel like I was playing myself."
Friends tell her she's changed since making the film.
"It's funny how art influences life and life influences art," she says. "She's a work of fiction that I brought myself to, but now it's begun to affect my actual life. She's so busy dancing for everyone else that she gets really lost. I identify with that. I've learned to be still and quiet and take time for myself instead of feeling compelled to be involved in a relationship. I'm becoming more aware of my own desires and needs."
Lee was dating a man while making the film ("I wanted him to be more jealous than he was!" she laughs), but they broke up last year during a trip to Senegal.
That life-changing journey forced Lee to communicate with people in her broken French, in non-technological ways. She just sent off $2,000 to a friend in a village there to buy a school's desks and books. The experience also inspired the I Want To Go To Africa And Other Tales Of High Adventure series she put together late last year.
"It was wonderful in so many ways," she says about that trip. "But the breakdown of my relationship was also playing itself out. So there was beauty, joy, heartbreak all at the same time."
On the work front, things are fine, but Lee's taken to lying to some of her CBC colleagues, saying there's a ban on their attending the film.
"Some people are asking if I'm ready to become a sex symbol, and I'm thinking, "Sex symbol? Yeah, if awkward dork person is the new sex symbol, sure. ''
And just as she's made up with her employers, things are good with her family, too.
She's prepared them for the release. Her father, supportive during the CBC affair, told her that life is too short to let somebody else dictate what you can and cannot do. If things fall apart, he told her, she could always come home.
"And I hadn't seen my mother in more than a decade," says Lee. "There was a rift. I went back a couple of weeks ago to prepare her just in case people talked about it around her. I asked how she felt about things like homosexuality and explicit sex."
"She said it was probably artsy. She does social work with street kids and told me that the kids she works with have done way worse stuff than I could ever imagine.
"I don't want her to see Shortbus," she sighs. "But I have a feeling she's going to sneak in."
SHORTBUS (John Cameron Mitchell) Rating: NNNN
Shortbus is, once you get past its admittedly shocking early montage of sex scenes, a thoughtful comedy drama about half a dozen New Yorkers with serious relationship issues. These include a gay couple (PJ DeBoy and Paul Dawson) who are considering an open relationship, their couples therapist (Sook-Yin Lee), who's never had an orgasm, and a dominatrix escort who lives in a storage locker.
Their lives converge in the artificial setting of the titular sex club, where no whim or limb goes unexplored. Of course, the characters are more scared about baring one organ - their hearts. And this, along with Mitchell's playful direction, makes the film almost sweet in its look at a been-there, done-that generation. Besides Lee, look for appearances by many other local lights, including Lex Vaughn and Gentleman Reg. (102 minutes, September 10, 9 pm, Ryerson; September 12, 2:15 pm, Paramount)