The Receptionist Review
While studying for her PhD in Fine Arts in London, Taiwanese student Jenny Lu had the opportunity to work with London Film School graduates and quickly saw the possibilities of the medium open up before her eyes. A decade later she has managed to direct her first feature film, The Receptionist, based on the tragic suicide of a friend who Lu later discovered had secretly been working as a masseuse at an illegal massage parlour.
The film is set around the time of her friend’s death in 2008, with the recession making itself felt right across the UK. Tina (Teresa Daley) is a recent university graduate living in London struggling to find work despite being constantly told she has a great C.V. When she heads to a residential address after hearing about a possible job opening she quickly discovers it’s an illegal massage parlour and turns it down.
Potential job offers are hardly flying in and money is getting harder to come by after her boyfriend is made redundant after only a few months. Tina decides to take on the job somewhat reluctantly and has her eyes opened to the harsh realities of life inside a brothel, with Madam Lilly (Sophie Gopsill) running the show, and Sasa (Shiang-chyi Chen), Mei (Amanda Fan) and new girl Anna (Teng Shuang) selling their bodies to make ends meet.
Lu’s film is well intentioned enough but as is often the case with films made on shoestring budgets the cast lack the experience to elevate underwritten characters and a thin storyline. Tina’s plight in sacrificing her principles and the consequences that effect her personal life are the least interesting aspect, and Lu finds more drama and intensity when opening up the inner lives of the working girls. Their motivations and circumstances that have led them to this point highlight the real life plights of women who travel from abroad only to become trapped in the illegal sex trade.
While it's unfortunate their backstories aren't looked into with much rigour and most of the cast aren’t able to read between the lines of the script, they do enough to make the people and the world they live in seem real enough. Lu’s handheld, social-realist approach was probably a decision made more out of necessity than anything else, but it proves to be the right aesthetic choice and Gareth Munden’s washed out photography is also a good fit.
There’s a touch of Stephen Frear’s Dirty Pretty Things to Lu’s story in a film that lifts the lid on those arriving in London from abroad who find that life can be just as brutally unfair as the poverty they're attempting to leave behind. Blaming migrants for a country’s ills is the usual go-to card during times of economic hardship and the lives of women like Sasa, Mei and Anna continue to be trampled underfoot all around us. Recessions may not discriminate, but it’s the ones at the bottom of the ladder that rarely ever get back on the first rung again.