In sex and on film, practice makes perfect
Shy is not a word in Sook-Yin Lee’s vocabulary. The Vancouver-born, Toronto-based renaissance woman (writer, director, actor, musician, and TV and radio host) came out as bisexual in 1995, when, as a VJ for MuchMusic, she spontaneously kissed a woman on-air after the Supreme Court of Canada added sexual orientation to Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. She later infamously mooned viewers during her last shift for the same broadcaster in 2001. And four years ago, she almost lost her job as host of CBC Radio One’s Definitely Not the Opera after higher-ups balked at her sexually graphic starring role in John Cameron Mitchell’s movie, Shortbus.
Now, Lee is once again courting controversy as the writer-director of the sexually frank but stunningly soulful Year of the Carnivore (opening Friday, June 18), her highest-profile and most personal feature film to date.
“I really drew upon my first love,” Lee says of her inspiration for writing Carnivore. “I was a gal who was pretty out of touch with myself, my body, my sexuality. I had no boyfriends throughout my childhood and adolescence. When most of the kids were playing spin the bottle, I was not invited.”
She laughs, and continues. “I wasn’t particularly desirable, and I didn’t feel desirable. I was very clueless.”
Lee’s matter-of-fact vulnerability has helped her craft a film that, under the auspices of another director, could have come off as a one-note kink-fest. In Carnivore, Sammy, played by the little-known New York actress Cristin Milioti, is a sexually awkward young woman with a bum leg (a daily reminder of her bout with childhood leukemia) who works undercover security at a grocery store. Eugene (Mark Rendall), a guitarist who busks outside, is the object of her affection. But after the two hit the sheets, he puts the kibosh on a relationship, telling Sammy she needs more experience in the bedroom before they can take things further. She takes his instruction to heart, with results that alternate between hilarious, heartfelt, and positively criminal.
Lee gleefully recounts just how much she mined her own past to flesh out Sammy and Eugene’s journey. As in the film, Lee was also a young woman who needed liquid courage to spill her guts. Literally.
“I felt I needed to confess my feelings, so I got incredibly drunk, because I had no confidence, no courage,” says Lee of the man who jilted her and inspired Carnivore’s central storyline. “I actually fell down the stairs of the Savoy Nightclub in Gastown before picking myself up, going over to his warehouse, and confessing my love. Then I proceeded to vomit all over him. He was really endeared to me, but also really upfront that he didn’t want to be in a relationship and that I was really terrible in the sack.”
Lee describes her ensuing years acquiring sexual experience as the work of a “zealous overachiever.” Eventually, she and her would-be paramour found their way back to each other, but not before making plenty of mistakes along the way.
“The fact of the matter is no one’s really great [at sex] from the get-go, and it rarely plays out like in romance novels or romantic movies,” Lee says. “People aren’t as... well, they’re more fumbly in real life. I really do love the inverted romance and people finding each other, but they have to earn it, they have to go through some hard knocks.”
Some of Sammy’s hard knocks include a variety of interactions that are sure to rile more conservative moviegoers, but even the most overtly shocking scenes (a threesome to help get over the hurdle of postpartum depression) touch on the truth that a good relationship needs good sex and communication to survive. Lee knows, however, that she can’t control the audience’s response to Carnivore’s casual depiction of sexual exploration.
“If people are outraged, that’s their own reaction,” Lee says, laughing. “What I try to do, on Not the Opera and in my writing, is bring myself to the story and the ideas we’re exploring. Not in a way that’s simply navel-gazing, but there’s usually something at its core that I wish to share with people that’s hopefully really useful to them as well. All of my work is drawing from a place of wanting to communicate and connect and share experiences that I’ve been privy to.”