Desiree Lim moves beyond comfort zone with genre-bending ghost story about reformed banker
BY SARAH BERMAN, VANCOUVER SUN
Filmmaker Desiree Lim isn’t one to stay within the confines of traditional narrative cinema.
The Vancouverite’s body of work includes campy behind-thescenes critique of a male-dominated porn industry, the untold plight of Burmese migrants, and many boundary-pushing dramas in between.
“It’s definitely mixed genre,” Lim says in an interview. “Very character-driven.” Natalie Skye plays the film’s central character, Jean, who returns to her hometown Vancouver after abandoning an investing job on Wall Street.
“She’s this hardened, stoic character – until we see her slowly break down,” Lim says. Skye has taken leading roles in four of Lim’s movies, but their latest collaboration pushed both out of their comfort zone.
“Playing something like that is always challenging because you don’t want to have her come across as flat – I think she found that right balance,” Lim says of Skye’s performance. “She embraced it and ran with it.”
In the film, Jean avoids her family by camping out in a friend’s empty mansion – a massive glassfilled cavern that’s been tied up in Vancouver’s property market for years. Jean soon realizes she’s not alone in the house, and becomes entangled in supernatural drama between characters in a similar state of limbo.
“It is a ghost film – it’s about spirits,” says Lim. “I’d like to think of it as a spiritual film in that way. People can decide for themselves whether the ghosts were real or not.”
Though The House is subtle in its corporate criticism, Lim says political underpinnings are a common thread throughout many of her films. “I’m trying to tell an interesting story that also has something to say,” she explains. “It’s not just for entertainment value, but also relevant to today and what’s going on.”
With a tent city of “occupiers” just a few blocks southeast of her West End home, the film’s latent message is a relevant one indeed. It’s an idea Lim shaped while working on a current affairs television show in Japan.
During the 2008 crisis, Lim directed a debate show for the country’s public broadcaster NHK. “It’s like the CBC here, but much bigger than the CBC,” Lim says.
“Through research I found this former Wall Street bankerturned-journalist whose story just inspired me,” she continues. “I got to know her better and invited her to the show.”
That guest was Nomi Prins, an author and accomplished economics whistleblower since she left her post as a New York investment banker after 9/11. “She basically made a career for herself on Wall Street climbing the corporate ladder at Goldman Sachs,” says Lim. “The truth is, Jean’s character is inspired by her.”
Prins’ reporting offers in-depth analysis of the Wall Street practices that brought the global economy to its knees. But rather than laying out the damage caused by banking fraud in numbers, Lim chooses to explore an intimate and personal side of the crisis through Jean’s character.
“When I first met her [Prins] on the show, it was all about the system or the financial meltdown – not about her personal life – That voice of dissent – I also wanted to artistically express it.”
Ghosts and suspense might be new tricks for Lim, but she’s well versed in both genre-and gender-bending. Identifying as a queer filmmaker, Lim challenges traditional notions of gender and sexuality in much of her work. Her 2001 full-length debut Sugar Sweet was the first film directed by an openly out lesbian to address Japan’s urban gay scene. With her eyes set on new injustices, Lim says she is happy to see the public speaking out in Vancouver and around the globe. “I think the world has been in limbo for the longest time,” she says. “Because of globalization, everybody is affected. It’s not a remote or local issue.”
Like much of the VAFF program, The House touches on the experience of Asian immigrants in Vancouver. “A lot of my stories and my characters are part of my own experience,” says Lim, who was born in Malaysia and has spent decades between Japan and Canada. “In that sense it is unique to here and very relevant to here.”
With Vancouver’s downtown streets making appearances throughout the film, Lim feels constantly inspired by the city she calls home. “If you look at my body of work, even my shorts and stuff, they’re all essentially Vancouver. That’s my love for the city, it’s also for the filmmaker to connect to the community and the art here.”
To celebrate Vancouver’s 125th birthday and the festival’s 15th year, VAFF commissioned a series of short tributes to the city. Before The House premieres on Sunday, the Love Letters to Vancouver series will present a five-minute short called Beauty Heart Story.
For Lim, the city she loves is often connected to a universal struggle. “I guess with this story, with the Wall Street financial meltdown element, it opens it up – it’s not just about Vancouver, it’s about the world.”