The Japan Times gets up close and personal with director John Cameron Mitchell and actress Sook-Yin Lee about the sexiest film of 2007

At film festivals around the globe, people have rushed to catch a glimpse of, and possibly chat with, the director and star who made the movie “Shortbus” — the do-all, end-all sex fest extravaganza of the year.

Certainly, this film is likely to be the first time audiences anywhere have seen three gay men singing “The Star Spangled Banner” into a particular bodily orifice of one another during a bout of love-making. Unconventional, to say the least. The film began in 2004 with a series of auditions, followed by a workshop where artists and actors lived, ate and slept together over a 5-week period. Director John Cameron Mitchell (who became a cause celebre when his 2001 film “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” — about a transgender rock singer — developed a cult following) and his leading lady, Canadian actress/DJ Sook-Yin Lee, say they have been inundated with compliments about the film.

Mitchell described his motivation for making the movie during the Tokyo leg of their promotional tour in July: “People all over the world are getting more and more negative about sex and relationships. I hoped this film would be the vehicle that would tell everyone, ‘Hey, the news isn’t all bad!’ “

In the mass media, on the other hand, Mitchell says he has heard plenty of bad news — and still does. “In the U.S., it really feels like we’re living in a fear-based economy right now. We’ve become so scared of the world, and at the same time, there’s a fear of what we unleash to the world . . . and people are equating fear of violence with fear of sex. That’s just not right, because sex is one of the things that keeps violence at bay. It’s one of the more positive ways we deal with terror. You know, ‘Make love not war.”

Lee nods and says that as far as the United States goes “people of our parents’ generation probably had more freedom, not just for sex but in the things they thought, the messages they were hearing in the media.”

Mitchell says he hoped to help restore some balance in people’s lives.

“I wanted to change the world a little bit,” he explains. “I looked around and realized that Americans are so fearful about emotions, desires, sex. Between 9/11 and (U.S. President George W.) Bush, they’ve completely changed the landscape out there, and I wanted to tell people we don’t have to live like that.”

Mitchell adds that the one place in the U.S. where the fear is less permeating, and ironically so post-9/11, is New York — and “Shortbus” is his letter of love to the city.

“I opened the film with a shot of a Statue of Liberty replica,” Mitchell says. “It’s just so beautiful for me, it represents the whole spirit of New York. You know, the phrase used to be, ‘Give us your hungry and your poor.’ Now it’s, ‘Give us your sexually repressed, your freaks and misfits.’ ”

Mitchell says that he loves how, despite its big-heartedness, New York is not at all laid-back. “Compared to other liberal cities like San Francisco and Amsterdam, New Yorkers are always trying to do something, make art or love or money or whatever, and they have this phobia about standing still. I think all of that is reflected in the movie.”

Lee, though she feels that her native Canada is better at embracing diversity, says New York is a special place. “Everyone is really busy, but they’re never too busy for sex,” she says.

Both Lee and Mitchell express concern that people in Tokyo appear to be just too darn busy for any of what they called the “important stuff.” They constantly throw out questions and opinions in the course of the interview (which turns out to be just as much about the sexual state in Tokyo as it is about the film): “Is it true no one has sex over here? How do the young people cope with having no sex? Are young men giving oral sex to women? Because that is so important for men and women!” This writer could only put up a feeble defense. Admittedly, there aren’t many people in Japan who go after orgasms with main character Sophia’s guts and single-mindedness. Mitchell gives a little sigh and says that is “awful, and such a shame.”

Lee describes Sophia as an overachiever who is “so caught up in doing this dance, you know? She had her career to work at, she was being the nurturer for her husband, she wanted to be there for her clients, her friends and, being an Asian, her parents were important to her, etc. She was so busy looking after everyone that she put her needs last and then she realized, ‘Wow, I’ve never had an orgasm!’ and decided that she wanted something wholly to herself for a change.”

Lee herself was brought up in a traditional Chinese-immigrant household where family members just did not talk about sex, and children were expected to excel and get far in life.

“By the time I had my first orgasm I was in my mid-20s,” says Lee, candidly. “But I didn’t really question the significance of the orgasm until this film. I’m sure there are a lot of women that identified with Sophia, in the sense that she was trying to seek out something that was missing in her sexual experience.”

Mitchell, for his part, grew up in a strict Catholic family in Texas during the 1970s — not an environment conducive to sexual contentment for a gay man.

“Because of my upbringing and subsequent rebellion against all that, I myself am constantly trying to let go of my inhibitions, and open myself to new experiences,” he explains.

Because Mitchell was so adamant that the cast “let go and let it rip” with the sex scenes, Lee says that the actors turned around and asked him to do something he had never done before.

“So I cast myself as an extra in one of the orgy scenes and went down on a woman, for the first time in my life!” Mitchell explains. The experience, he describes, was “quite wonderful and delicious.”

It also “broke the ice for many men in the shooting,” he says. “The women were calm and very Zen about it, but the guys were often really nervous.”

What differentiates “Shortbus” from other sex-orientated films, such as Michael Winterbottom’s recent “Nine Songs” (in which two people have sex for the entire duration of the film)? Mitchell says that ” ‘Shortbus’ isn’t about making sex look exotic or even erotic. . . . It’s not even about sex per se, but more about life, and coming to terms with love relationships. Sex is the means, but it’s never the end.”

Lee’s take on it is that “sex can be this great factor in your life, but at the same time there’s got to be something more in your life to make it truly wonderful. It’s really interesting how sex can draw out all the things in a person’s life, reflect his or her thoughts and spirit and how they had lived their lives. It’s a gift, really.”

Mitchell chimes in: “Yes, which is why people should stop being afraid of it, and have more!”

“Shortbus” opens Aug. 25 at Shibuya Cinema Rise in Shibuya, Tokyo, and from Sept. 1 in other parts of the country.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.