Dir.: Jenny Lu; Cast: Shiang-chyi Chen, Fan Shixuan, Shuang Teng, Teresa Daley, Sophie Gopsill, Joshua Whitehouse, Stephen Pucci; UK/Taiwan 2016, 102 min.
Needs must when the Devil drives comes to mind in describing Jenny Lu’s grim but timely exploration of migrant’s shattered dreams dedicated to Anna, a woman from mainland China, whose life ended in tragedy after seeking a better life.
Set mainly in a dingy ‘massage parlour’ near Heathrow and told from the perspective of Tina, the titular onlooker, The Receptionist pictures the lives of several young migrant workers in contemporary London.
Tina (Daley) and her boyfriend Frank (Whitehouse) are graduates struggling to pay back their student grants and coping with the high rent of their miniscule flat. Tina’s job-seeking experiences are futile – who wants another literature graduate? When Frank is sacked, Tina takes the job she had rejected in the first place: receptionist to ‘Madame’ Lily (Gospsill), whose tawdry house near Heathrow Airport is the setting for this exploitation drama. When Tina arrives, Lily already has two sex-workers toiling for her: the mature, having-seen-it-all Sasa (Chen), and the the pixie-like Mei (Shixuan), who pretends that it’s all a game. At first, Tina is aloof – treating Sasa and Mei with contempt and grudgingly obeying Lily, who always finds new jobs for Tina – such as duct-taping the windows “ so that the neighbours cannot smell the sex”. But Tina prefers writing up her diary – an activity totally out of place given the setting.
Relationships are complicated by Sam (Pucci) Madame Lily’s much younger ‘toy lover’, who not so secretly yearns for some “freebies”. When Anna (Teng), a woman in her mid-thirties arrives, Tina turns her allegiance to the sex workers, joins “their side” against her employer. Anna is a naive country girl and has no idea what she letting herself into. Her family has paid a huge sum of money so that she can work in the UK – and everybody back home relies on this financial support. She soon finds out from Sasa and Mei that abortions are not safe at all, even an anaesthetic is seen as a luxury. Unable to cope, Anna looses the will to live. The ending itself is poetic but never sentimental and cannot hide what has gone on before.
The director’s debut drama shows a passionate concern for her story and never lets up on realism, without resorting to explicit sex or nudity. DoP Gareth Munden captures the prison atmosphere with great flair and the ensemble acting is brilliant. Whilst there are some structural difficulties, The Receptionist is more than well-meaning, showing the fate of invisible women from another world being pushed to the margins and beyond. AS
NATIONWIDE FROM 20 JULY 2018