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New Release Review - THE RECEPTIONIST

the receptionist movie review
A Taiwanese immigrant takes a job as the receptionist at a London brothel.







Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Jenny Lu

Starring: Chen Shiang Chyi, Teresa Daley, Josh Whitehouse, Lorraine Stanley

the receptionist movie poster


Prostitution may be the world's oldest profession, but it's still a taboo subject all but a few of the world's more liberal societies are willing to acknowledge, with most countries banning it outright in the naive hope that, much like drugs, the supply and demand of the industry will wear out at some point. Personally, I'm of the opinion that, as with drugs, the best way to tackle prostitution is to be realistic about the issue and legalise it. No woman, or indeed man, should have to sell their body to make ends meet, but doesn't it make sense that those who choose to do so can practice their profession in a safe and regulated environment, and in a society where 'whore' is no longer the go-to insult for a woman?


the receptionist movie


Whether it was the intention of debut writer/director Jenny Lu or not, The Receptionist's portrayal of the struggles of Asian prostitutes in London has only strengthened my stance on the issue. The workers employed at the film's central 'massage parlour', located in a semi-detached in a leafy suburb, have it tough, but their stress isn't caused by their clients, most of whom are polite at best, pathetic at worst. Rather it's outside forces that seek to exploit the criminal nature of the girls' work, all too aware that these girls can't turn to the police for help.

Our entry point to this world is Tina (Teresa Daley), a prim and proper young Taiwanese woman struggling to find paid employment in a city where every job seems to receive 300 applications. Answering a notice for a receptionist, Tina finds herself being interviewed by massage parlour madam Lily (Sophie Gopsill), but as soon as she realises the true nature of the working environment she declines the offer.


the receptionist movie


Unable to find any legitimate work, Tina decides to give it a go for a few days until something turns up, agreeing with Lily that she won't be servicing any of the clients herself. There she meets Lily's employees - the always angry Sasa (Chen Shiang-chyi), a Chinese immigrant left stranded in London after a marriage of convenience went sour; the kooky Mei (Amanda Fan), a gold-digging Malaysian whose chirpy demeanour is rarely broken; and Anna (Teng Shuang), a shy Chinese girl who really isn't cut out for such work.

Lu and her cast do a convincing job of recreating a house of ill repute hidden away in the mundane world of suburban London, and when the movie is focussed on the day to day workings of the brothel it's a compelling work-place drama. Early on I worried that the scenario of an educated and disproving young woman taking a job at a brothel might lead to a condescending 'saviour' scenario, but such fears soon proved unfounded. Tina may soften up to the admittedly intimidating professional women who become her new colleagues, and find a surrogate family in the sweaty surroundings of the parlour, but she never loses her air of superiority. She even begins ferreting away money she steals from her co-workers, and when Lily cottons on that a thief is in her midst, Tina uses her guile to frame one of the other girls for the theft. You would have to be exceptionally conservative and judgmental not to view Tina's actions as far more immoral than those of the prostitutes she looks down on.


the receptionist movie


It's when Lu's camera moves away from the brothel that The Receptionist begins to show cracks, with the residents of London portrayed in one-note fashion, serving as all-too convenient plot points. Tina's boyfriend, initially portrayed as a loving dope, reacts to the news of his girlfriend's new job in such an over-the-top fashion that the film enters the territory of those 1930s melodramas about young women straying from the path of polite society. Elsewhere, a white woman who lives next door to the brothel is a living embodiment of how I imagine Guardian readers imagine Brexit voters, and a couple of cockney tough guys seem to have escaped from a Danny Dyer drama.

While it's difficult to buy the film's odd critique of London, as this is a story that could have been set in any city on any continent, it certainly adds fuel to the debate around how society treats immigrants and sex-workers. It's just a shame that it frequently resorts to soapy theatrics in order to do so.

The Receptionist is in UK cinemas July 20th.




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