‘The Receptionist’: Film Review

Jenny Lu turns her camera on the plight of migrant women in the Taiwan-U.K. co-production ‘The Receptionist.’

Dire financial straits lead a young Taiwanese graduate in London to a job as a receptionist in a low-rent “massage parlor” in The Receptionist, directed by Taipei native and U.K. resident Jenny Lu. The U.K.-Taiwan co-production is the latest in a burgeoning subgenre focused on Asian women who are forced into prostitution in Europe. (Olivier Meys‘ Bitter Flowers is another recent offering.) Rooted in the often stark — and varying — realities of migrant workers, now common across the globe, the film is well intentioned but falls victim to many of the tropes of the “hard-luck” story, regardless of how relevant they may be.

Still, as conventional a filmmaker as Lu may be, she’s blessed with a stellar supporting performance from Tsai Ming-liang regular Chen Shiang-chyi and a light touch that never resorts to a cudgel to make its points. After a bow at Taipei’s Golden Horse Film Festival and a short run at home in Taiwan, the film has kicked around under the radar, but The Receptionist will slot in seamlessly with Asia-focused and women’s festivals, and the low-key tone will be a good fit for the intimacy of television and computer screens, making streaming the best bet for a wider outlet, which it deserves.

The Bottom Line

Timely and important, if somewhat familiar.

Unfolding in a London wracked by recession, fresh graduate Tina (Teresa Daley), desperate for a job, answers an ad for a receptionist gig at a massage parlor — in reality a brothel — near Heathrow Airport. At first declining the job when she realizes what’s really expected of her by the pushy Taiwanese mamasan, Lily (Sophie Gopsill), she reconsiders when her preferred job search bears no fruit and her proper, live-in white boyfriend, Frank (Joshua Whitehouse), loses his job. Like any modern media-industry budding pro, Tina makes no effort to hide her distaste for her stopgap position, and by extension the other women she works with: Sasa (Chen), the hardened veteran who flirts dangerously with a heart of gold; the walking, talking anime character Mei (Fan Shixuan); and the tragic newbie Anna (Shuang Teng), a Mainland woman with an entire family to support and massive debt. Lurking on the periphery is Lily’s younger lover Sam (Stephen Pucci), who’s clearly bad news.

The Receptionist is most effective and affecting when Lu and co-writer Yeh Yi-wen focus on the women’s crushing invisibility and the resignation each has settled on because of it. They know that less-than-professional abortions are the best they’ll be able to afford, and that lying about their jobs — to friends, to family — is part and parcel of struggling to make ends meet when they land on Europe’s mean streets, which are decidedly not paved with gold. When they become victims of a hideous crime, they have no recourse and no one to advocate for them. They should just “go home,” if the unwelcoming neighbors are to be believed.

Chen and Shuang do wonders with their thinly written archetypes. Though the characters are familiar to screens, the two actors manage enough nuance to make them feel authentic, particularly Chen, who makes Sasa’s daily effort to maintain her dignity palpable. Daley runs hot and cold, and is more convincing in her contempt phase, effortlessly sliding between sympathy and self-interest.

For most of its running time The Receptionist doesn’t say anything truly enlightening — it’s loaded with ripe cliches like the requisite pop-song-backed girls’ bonding moment (thankfully no one sings into a hairbrush) and the contrived avoidance of a five-minute conversation between adults that would stop the story cold. And it all unfolds, what’s said and what isn’t, at a near snail’s pace. But the film’s cleverest, vaguely subversive move was to refashion the “struggling migrant” at the center of the story as a legally documented, white-collar university graduate, making the point that the same fate can befall bankers and farmworkers.

Production companies: Uncanny Films, Dark Horse Image
Cast: Teresa Daley, Chen Shiang-chyi, Fan Shixuan, Shuang Teng, Sophie Gopsill, Joshua Whitehouse, Stephen Pucci, Lorraine Stanley
Director: Jenny Lu
Screenwriters: Jenny Lu, Yeh Yi-wen
Producers: Chang Chin, Chiou Zi-ning, Shuang Teng, Peter J. Kirby
Executive producers: Damian Jones, Jimmy Huang, Christian Eisenbeiss, Steve Milne
Director of photography: Gareth Munden
Production designer: Kane Silks
Costume designers: Maree Choi, Raphael Mann
Editor: Chen Hoping
Music: Lu Lu-ming
World sales: Mirovision

In English and Mandarin