thu 25/04/2024

The Receptionist – London’s underground sex industry laid bare | reviews, news & interviews

The Receptionist – London’s underground sex industry laid bare

The Receptionist – London’s underground sex industry laid bare

An incredibly effective and affecting story on life in a brothel

When director Jenny Lu graduated from university, the promise of a big city career quickly turned into a series of rejections. Around this time, a close friend of hers committed suicide by jumping off a bridge – unbeknownst to their circle of friends, this girl was working in the sex industry.

Lu has mined these real-world experiences to craft an unflinching but deeply touching film.

Taiwanese graduate Tina (Teresa Daley, pictured above right) is our gateway into this world. With post-university funds running low, and a boyfriend recently made redundant, her job hunt eventually leads her to a suburban “massage parlour”. She initially runs a mile, but desperation soon brings her back to work as the receptionist, taking bookings and cleaning up after clients. It’s only a temporary position, she affirms to the brothel’s madame Lily, until she finds a proper job. You get the feeling that’s been said by many girls before.

The brothel’s staff comprise of Sasa (Shiang-chyi Chen, pictured below), a distant woman hardened by the job, Mei, an enthusiastic and sweet girl with limited English but excellent music tastes, and Lily, the self-serving owner with a snake-like smile and British toyboy in arm. Three distinct personalities, occasionally verging on cliché, but carefully developed and excellent in tandem. Away from the house they might never be friends, but within this hardened environment they become sisters in arms, savouring moments of happiness together.

Shiang-chyi Chen in The Receptionist

Tina settles into her role, navigating the personalities and avoiding the advances of clients. Her boyfriend thinks she’s working at a publishers, a lie that becomes harder to maintain as she returns home exhausted and disturbed. Attempts to find another job are hampered by her role at the parlour, as its very being seeps into every part of her life. Despite her best efforts to stay detached, it comes to define her life in London like everyone else working there.

The Receptionist is neither exploitative nor pitying: there are moments a real levity, and moments of horrifying assault. Like life itself, either in isolation can make you forget about the other, but the whole picture is more complicated than good or bad. The seediness comes not from the sex workers nor their house, but the clients and their animalistic actions, which range from weird to downright violent. Despite the best efforts of the women, they struggle to normalise their experiences, and as they build up, so do we.

Amanda Fan in The Receptionist

There’s an overwhelming sense of isolation – we meet Tina living the London life, complete with British boyfriend and an internship, but once she joins the brothel, her worth shifts in the eyes of the native population. The women are seen as lower creatures, used and abused by the clients, and hated by the locals. Each of them is a survivor, far from home, doing what they can to get to where they want to be: as the viewer we can see this, but most cannot. This may be about the sex industry, but it has something wider to say about the immigrant experience in Britain.

Jenny Lu has crafted a very human story that balances the domestic with high drama. Initially beginning life as a Kickstarter project, The Receptionist is a British-Taiwanese co-production that brings a grounded perspective to an often-sensationalised subject. Written and performed by Asian women, there’s an authenticity and authority that is regrettably rare in Western cinema. It’s sometimes a little rough around the edges (an unconvincing extra here, a subtitle typo there), and some questions are left unanswered, but this doesn’t detract from a film that will stay with you long after the credits roll.


Jenny Lu has crafted a very human story that balances the domestic with high drama


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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