Many of us have fallen on hard times, trying to make our pennies stretch until the end of the month, worrying about how we will find the money to pay for rent. The main character Tina (played by the exceptional Teresa Daley) in The Receptionist is in dire financial straits, trying to find work but being turned away from every job. She manages to land a job as a receptionist in a low-rent “massage parlor”. This expertly, moving drama is directed by Taipei native and U.K. resident Jenny Lu. The U.K.-Taiwan co-production focuses on the actual crisis, of Asian women who are being forced into prostitution in Europe. As Lu disclosed in an interview, she was inspired to write the film after the suicide of one of her friends, who worked in an illegal brothel, “The more I found out about it, the more I felt I needed to tell the story. Not just about my friend, but also about the people who are still working there, who still struggle with their daily lives.”
At first Tina declines the receptionist job, after she realizes what’s really expected of her by the pushy Taiwanese brothel owner Lily (Sophie Gopsill). However, Tina is forced to reconsiders when her boyfriend Frank (Joshua Whitehouse), loses his job. Tina gets to know the other women working at the brothel, there is Sasa (Shiang-chyi Chen), the hardened veteran who flirts dangerously with a heart of gold; the over-the-top and totally kawaii Mei (Fan Shixuan); and the tragic newbie Anna (Shuang Teng), a Mainland woman with an entire family to support and massive debt. There is also the likes of Lily’s younger lover Sam (Stephen Pucci), who is a sleazy low life, who clearly is after one thing from Lily.
The Receptionist is a grim social realistic drama, which details the struggle that many immigrants face as they try to make a living by any means necessary. This is not an erotic film, I should make this clear from the onset. Sex is shown here as being exploitative, damaging and degrading. I suspect that if this film had been made by a male director, the representation of sex could have been easily glamorize. The actresses are never shot in an overtly sexual way (in what may be dubbed by some as the male gaze), and in order to create this social realism look, there is a lot of use of the handheld camera which helps give the film a ‘fly on the wall’ documentary appearance. There are some moments of pure urban beauty, a deflated balloon stuck in a tree and moments of surrealism (a bath tub full of earth worms) which help reinforce the film’s overall beauty and artistic form.
The film mostly takes place inside the four walls of the brothel, the escorts work, eat, live and sleep in a dark, claustrophobic house on the outskirts of London, a city known to them only by name, an outside world that exists only beyond the brothel walls, unreachable to them. Shot in a muted pallet of colours, the film is shot deliberately with a lack of colour, the world to these women is full of depressing greys (grey skies, grey buildings, even Tina is often shown wearing a grey hooded jacket), and the contrast of Tina’s home with its bright blue skies and lush greens, is used to great effect to reinforce how nothing really compares to our home.
Lu and co-writer Yeh Yi-wen have managed to weave a heartfelt, moving tale of these women’s invisibility, and their struggles to find their identity, and to support those who depend on them. These women are truly alone in the world, and can only turn to each other for some sort of compassion, and understanding. There are some truly touching scenes of the women bonding over cooking, and the film shows the power of friendship which can help us in our darkest time. And there are scenes where we find ourselves questioning the state of humanity, for example when the women become victims of a hideous crime, they have no recourse and no one to advocate for them. As they are escorted outside they are met by yells ”go back home” and racial slurs, reflecting how divided we have become as a society.
Chen and Teng both deliver a stronger performances, particularly Chen, who makes Sasa appear a complex, fleshed out character who has many layers. Teng as the tragic Anna, has one of the most heartbreaking scenes in an airport as she sobs that she wants to go home to her mother, but of course no one understands the reason for her emotional outburst. Daley is also very good, managing to hold the film together, and we fully buy into her naivety in the world she finds herself in. Her scenes with Chen are very touching with the two women slowly growing closer and opening up to one and another. Gopsill is also very decent, with her character being larger than life, a tough woman whose bark is worst than her bite. It is a shame that the male actors deliver less than impressive performances, Josh Whitehouse seems a little too over dramatic in certain scenes and I don’t fully buy into his character’s sudden change in attitude, and Daniel York seems to be playing his character a little too on the nose for me. Perhaps it was simply that the female performances were far superior than their male peers.
With a well written script that treats it’s audience with respect, Jenny Lu’s film delivers a powerful message of solidarity and companionship. Lu doesn’t glamourize sex or violence, but shows us the ugly side that often gets pushed to one side. This is not an easy film to watch, and it can be very challenging at times, but I urge people to watch it all the same, because it reflects the reality of life for many immigrants. The film shows us that what we really desire and need. isn’t money or sex, but a place to call home. “If earthworms leave the ground for too long, they die,” Sasa mentions during the film, and this is something we can all take away with us. I look forward to Lu’s next film, as she has certainly proved herself to be a capable director with an eye for detail, and an ability to create complex characters who seem as real as the struggles they face.