Sook-Yin Lee on Getting Stuck in an Elevator with Moby and Surviving the Anarchy of Woodstock '99
The musician and filmmaker remembers "walking the streets of Vancouver dressed as a ten-foot-tall egg noodle, Mr. Noodle, and getting beaten up by a gang of skinheads."
Published Apr 07, 2021Sook-Yin Lee has worn many hats over the past 30-plus years — musician, actor, film director, CBC Radio host and golden-era MuchMusic VJ.
Her latest project is particularly close to her heart: jooj two is her experimental electropop collaboration with longtime creative partner and best friend Adam Litovitz, who died in 2019. They began working on the songs through a stream-of-consciousness collaboration, and although Litovitz eventually set the project aside to work on a TV score, he gave Lee his blessing to finish the album — a mission that became particularly urgent after his death.
"Working with this music makes me feel close to Adam," Lee tells Exclaim! "His spirit is in the songs. I'm excited for people to hear them."
What are you up to?
The challenges of lockdown life and events that have unfolded are inspiring. I made a D.I.Y. hybrid movie with Dylan Gamble called Death and Sickness that is streaming on CBC Gem. It's a work of auto-fiction dedicated to Adam, my little sister Dede, and Malca Litovitz (Adam's mom, a poet). They have passed and the movie features passages of their inspiring creative writing.
I've also been writing a live-action movie adaptation of cartoonist Chester Brown's best-selling graphic novel Paying for It, about sex work and his life as a john in '90s-era Toronto, which I will direct.
I'm developing a new experimental comedy with Dylan Gamble. We've only just begun and have to deliver it to a deadline, so the pressure is on!
This year also marks my return to my first love, music. With the release of our album, jooj two, I'm honing my chops to play live shows when it's safe to.
What are your current fixations?
I've enjoyed revisiting Val Lewton's 1940s noir films from RKO Pictures. Movies like The Seventh Victim are steeped in mood and atmosphere but were made with dirt-cheap innovation, which is inspiring. I love filmmaker Lina Wertmüller. Seven Beauties and Love and Anarchy are audacious, political, absurd and very funny movies. I'm also into pomegranates, chia and flax seed, ras el hanout spice, homemade sauerkraut, avocados, wearing muumuus, cartoonist Jillian Tamaki, painters Margaux Williamson and Erick García Gómez, style maven Sarah Kilpack, performance artists Stephen Jackman-Torkoff and Jesi Jordan, and musician Jennifer Castle — all brilliant makers, thinkers, and dear friends.
What's the last book or movie that blew your mind?
The last movie to blow my mind was the one I watched last night— the 1953 sci-fi classic It Came from Outer Space. I loved the blobular transparent alien-camera and how the actors twirled in a cloud of fog to convey that they were under the aliens' spell. It co-starred the same actor who played the asexual Professor on Gilligan's Island, and I was like, 'Hey, what's the Professor doing in this movie?' I liked how the aliens were smarter and more compassionate than brutal and fearful earthlings, which seems accurate. I enjoyed the jittery long lens doc-style shots that followed speeding trucks along desert highways.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational concert and why?
Covering Woodstock '99 for MuchMusic is permanently etched on my brain. I witnessed the total breakdown of "civilized society," where corporate greed and a clash of college bros and idyllic hippies devolved into a throng of shit-throwing, raping and pillaging ravagers. Things devolved during the Jimi Hendrix tribute concert, when hippie organizers thought it would be a good idea to pass around lighters. Fires were lit and golem dancing followed but soon turned into pyromania and bedlam to the clamour of Limp Bizkit. When the crowd began tearing down stages like the one Ed the Sock and I were broadcasting from, the plug was pulled on the show and a stage rigger warned us to get the hell out of there. We were told by our director at the far end of the field behind a wall of security that we had to save the equipment. I grabbed a stack of expensive outboard racks and willed myself to be invisible. I remember mentally donning a cloaking device and snaking my way through raging bare-chested rioters. Somehow I glided to safety without being seen. Woodstock '99 showed me how fragile society is. It doesn't take much for it to break down.
What's been the greatest moment of your career so far?
I don't have a "greatest moment," but a highlight was the premiere of Shortbus, a movie I acted in, at the Cannes International Film Festival, which is like the Olympics of movies. We were total underdogs taken by surprise when our adventurous sex comedy received a 20-minute standing ovation. Afterwards, the crowd followed us through the streets of Cannes cheering us on, not knowing we were actually following my cast-mate Lindsay Beamish to the hotel where she had to return a diamond necklace from a shady company that loaned diamonds and bodyguards to movie stars who walk red carpets.
What's been the worst moment of your career so far?
Being exposed to a culture of fear at work when managers are unable to make good choices because they are afraid of getting in trouble from the manager above them. It's a kind of corporate butt-covering tower of fear that leads to a toxic work environment, bad behaviour, and bad decision making like when the CBC threatened to end my contract if I acted in Shortbus because they were afraid of the queer and explicitly sexual aspects of the movie. Luckily, with public pressure and support of a legion of artists, the managers reversed their decision. Over the years I have encountered this culture of fear in different guises and cultural institutions. It is disappointing because it's perpetuated by intelligent people you could have a beer with, who justify poor decisions that are driven by fear and self-preservation. My hope is that a continuing demand for meaningful inclusion will bring about a change of power.
Who's a Canadian musician that should be more famous?
Two awesome DJs spring to mind: Ace Dillinger and Korea Town Acid.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
Early on, when it was affordable, I was advised to buy Bitcoin. I didn't.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
The first song I wrote was a song called "Chan Is Missing" inspired by the 1982 movie Chan Is Missing by Wayne Wang. I was a confused teenager struggling with my identity. I couldn't identify with "Anglo-Canadian" culture, I didn't feel "China Chinese" or "Hong Kong Chinese." I was something else, but I didn't know what. Discovering Wayne Wang's movie Chan Is Missing was a paradigm-shifting moment. It was a funny, raw and real Chinese-American story I could relate to as Chinese-Canadian. It reminded me of me and my cousins and sisters. It was the first movie that reflected my experience. I wrote the song "Chan Is Missing." Here's an excerpt of the lyrics: "The years have passed / The train was built / Chan's grandfather is dead / He drives a cab in the big city / Works the morning shift till ten / He sings along to rock and roll / And turns the volume loud / Chan is missing."
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
Life as a child, looking out the kitchen window of my family home at snow-covered mountains in the distance. They looked fake, and for the longest time I was sure we all lived under a dome and those mountains were painted on the side.
What's the meanest thing anyone has ever said about your art?
The first feature movie I wrote and directed was Year of the Carnivore, an awkward coming-of-age comedy drama starring Cristin Miilioti as a young woman struggling with her identity and sexuality. A veteran Toronto film critic gave it a scathing review, writing something like, 'If this is supposed to be a sex comedy, why isn't it more sexy?!'
What was the first album you ever bought with your own money?
A reissue of the White Album, the double record by the Beatles.
What was your most memorable day job?
Walking the streets of Vancouver dressed as a ten-foot-tall egg noodle, Mr. Noodle, and getting beaten up by a gang of skinheads on Granville Street. Fortunately I was not hurt, there was a lot of foam in the costume, but I was mad. I made my first short film, Escapades of the One Particular Mr. Noodle, based on the experience.
If you weren't playing music, what would you be doing instead?
If I never ran away from my home in Lynn Valley, North Vancouver, I would never have been able to pursue music. I'd probably be a bank teller or a grocery store cashier, which is what I always wanted to be when "I grew up".
How do you spoil yourself?
I eat a lot of potato chips.
What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
I'm a playful and mischievous person which can be obnoxious and annoying. I have stick-to-itiveness and ability to follow through on what I start, but that can turn into obsessive workaholism. Things I like and dislike about myself cut both ways!
What's the best way to listen to music?
Cranked on good speakers in my living room.
What do you fear most?
When things fuck up and it's all my fault!
If you won the lottery, what would you do with the money?
I'd share it with my friends and family doing fun stuff. I'd give a bunch to at-risk street kids to build an awesome home where they call the shots. I'd make movies and music. I'd travel to maybe Vietnam or Taiwan.
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
Strange celebrity encounter number one: Getting stuck in a 3-foot by 3-foot elevator on a sweltering summer day in New York City with Moby. First it was funny, then, terrifying. I stood in the dark quietly trying to control my breathing, while he panicked and called his friends for help. A half hour later we were rescued.
Strange celebrity encounter number two: I received an email from Francis Ford Coppola who wrote, "Your CDs are wonderful; so imaginative. " I couldn't believe it! Later, he sent me a draft of a script for an epic multimillion-dollar movie he was developing and asked for my opinion. Up until then, everyone had gushed that it was great. When I read it, I could see there were problems. But what to do…say it was great or tell him the truth? I opted for tough-love and wrote: "I want to see more of an arc… Who was responsible and what is the point?… Why is he so hateful other than being jealous? He needs more fleshing out… I'd like to see more dimensions to his character," etc. Francis eventually abandoned the picture and focused his energy on a tinier and much more personal low budget movie instead.
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
I would enjoy sitting down to eat butter chicken takeout roti, drink a delicious bottle of red wine, and smoke cigarillos with Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller, who is 92 years strong. She has made the most incredible movies that bring together her love of musical comedy and serious politically conscious drama. A non-conformist from the get-go, young Lina was expelled from 15 different Catholic high schools. Her earliest interest was in comics, particularly Flash Gordon. She worked as a puppeteer before assisting Federico Fellini on 8 1/2. When it came to writing and directing her own movies, to me, she eclipsed the master. Her idiosyncratic films are bold, funny, sexy, stupid, smart and subversive. They make you laugh and cry at the same time, which is the best. No one makes movies the way she does because there is only one fabulous Lina Wertmüller a.k.a. Arcangela Felice Assunta Wertmüller von Elgg Spanol von Braueich!
What is the greatest song of all-time?
There are too many great songs to choose just one "greatest of all time" — but, I love "Auld Lang Syne," the Scottish folk song based on a poem by Robbie Burns. It is a stirring call to remember long-standing friendships, often sung to bring in a new year and cherished by Chinese because it shares the same pentatonic scale in common with Chinese music. The next time you are in Chinatown, Toronto, take a moment to listen to the elderly street musician on the corner of Dundas and Spadina sing his warbling version of "Auld Lang Syne" that moves me with its uplifting and melancholy melody.