She says she can’t recall the day she gave viewers a graphic on-air account of her constipation, back when she was a MuchMusic VJ in the ’90s. But Sook-Yin Lee does remember the shit storm that followed when she used the one word that was still verboten on live TV.
Watch the trailer for Year of the Carnivore.
“I was interviewing the Red Hot Chili Peppers,” she recollects, giggling, “and Anthony Kiedis took a liking to my ring, and I told him about how it was given to me by my friends and how it championed our slogan, which was ”˜cats, cunts, and rubber cocks’. And I got in total deep shit because I didn’t realize cunt was a swear word. To me it was this wonderful, empowering word that me and my friends always used.”
After a beat, she continues, “People think I’m bold, but I’m really not that bold. I’m just kind of stupid.”
Lee is speaking to the Straight from her office in Toronto, where she hosts the CBC Radio’s Definitely Not the Opera while struggling with a persistent and impish drive to push the envelope a little too much. Naturally, her first feature as a writer-director is drenched in Lee’s particular sensibility. Year of the Carnivore, which opens in Vancouver on Friday (June 18), is the slightly bent tale of a shy supermarket detective who doggedly sets out to sharpen her bedroom skills after a disastrous one-nighter with the musician she loves. (Barf is involved, and so is a lot of inappropriate giggling.)
Wild shifts in tone ensue. What begins as a whimsical comedy anchored by a cute performance from Cristin Milioti eventually takes some very left turns into situations that might have been smuggled in from Shortbus, the taboo-busting feature that starred Lee and took her to Cannes in 2006. The scene in which Milioti experiments with a dildo while flanked by newborn twins comes to mind. Then there’s the threesome involving a lactating mom.
“People think it’s quite audacious,” Lee concedes. “You can hear a collective sigh when she’s in the woods and she’s about to give Lazowski a blowjob.” Lazowski, for the record, is a decrepit and probably homeless shoplifter busted by Milioti’s character, Sammy Smalls. But Lee insists that she didn’t set out to shock people with Carnivore.
“Not at all,” she says. “In fact, every one of those moments that’s a little ”˜whoa’ has its seed in real life for me. The film is inspired by my first love, and I fell in love with him through a very unlikely and circuitous route. We were both really young and I was terrible in the sack, and so was he, and I went out and tried to find some more experience on the mean streets of Vancouver. And we eventually found our way back to one another.”
Lee adds that Carnivore is heavily informed by her days as a teenager in the artistic ferment of Strathcona in the ’80s. There’s a band in the movie named after early Surrey punkers No Fun—a reference that’s made doubly neat since No Fun is played by young Vancouver noize merchants Modern Creatures. (Carnivore was shot in Maple Ridge.) And in what might be the first recorded identification of a West Coast subculture nobody knew about, Lee says Sammy’s job is related to “a supermarket crowd I used to run with”. She laughs and says, “They’d tell me about one particular supermarket where they’d beat the shit out of the shoplifters. It happens! Real life is the most unbelievable place.”
What finally makes Carnivore so charming is the almost defiant way it zigzags all over the map. It’s not conventional, but it signifies a certain confidence coming from behind the camera, and that too was cultivated right here, back when Lee was emerging into the public eye as the vocalist with art-rock band Bob’s Your Uncle.
“In Vancouver,” she says, “I grew up in the community of artists and musicians and independent creators, and that’s where my voice developed, and where I was encouraged to express myself uniquely. That’s what everybody was doing, and that’s what we celebrated in one another. I think that’s ingrained in me.”
Lee’s “voice” is certainly there in the unpredictable plotting of Carnivore, while the film’s general warmth and slightly kitschy visual sense can be traced right back to her first “warts and all” short, the lovely “Escapades of the One Particular Mr. Noodle” that played at the VIFF in 1990. Lee is delighted to hear that somebody else sees the connection.
“I really look fondly at ”˜Mr. Noodle’,” she says with a sigh, “because it was my first movie and I really didn’t know the rules. All I knew was the story I wanted to tell and what it looked like in my mind’s eye. So I was really happy to see Carnivore at the end and go, ”˜Okay, the spirit is intact.’ ”
Whatever Lee might say to the contrary, the spirit is bold, not stupid.