“I would like you to remember that this happens to real people,” introduced director and producer of The Receptionist, Jenny Lu.
This opening provides an added layer of significance to the film, humanising this heart-wrenching piece of art.
It forces the audience to face the hidden part of Britain that filmgoers are privileged enough to not know about. The audience watch the picture knowing the characters and the events are real, and could be happening on their doorstep.
The film opens with Tina (Teresa Daley), a recently graduated English Literature student, in futile search for employment.
She reluctantly accepts a job working as a receptionist at an illegal massage parlour, and from this begins to understand and connect with the women working there.
Based on the true story of one of Lu’s friends, who tragically committed suicide after working in an illegal massage parlour, The Receptionist is an intensely onerous film to watch.
The gritty story, grounded in reality, gives the audience an insight into a world shrouded in taboo and forces them to challenge their preconceived notions regarding sex work.
As a first-time solo film producer, Lu took substantial risks in the filming process. She made Chen Shiang-Chyi, the renowned Taiwanese actress who portrays the phlegmatic Sasa, go into a massage parlour in inner London and ask for a job in order to fully learn about the experiences of girls in this industry.
This bold executive decision leads to a true connection with the character, and ultimately creates a moving and thoroughly convincing performance by Shiang-Chyi.
The focus of the film lies not in the bedroom, but in the living room and kitchen of the parlour.
The day-to-day activities in the bedroom are not important, as we know all about what goes on behind these closed doors.
Lu focuses on the bonds formed between the girls in the massage parlour and the ordeals they go through just to survive. She focuses on their personal struggles, mental wellbeing, and the consequences of being illegally exploited for their bodies.
CONVINCING PERFORMANCE: Film director Jenny Lu made Chen Shiang-Chyi (pictured) ask for a job in a massage parlour to learn about the industry
Tina is meant to be relatable: an educated woman with aspirations and dreams, who gets exposed to the cruel underground world of illegal massage parlours.
At first, Tina is repulsed by the work of the masseuses. However, as the film progresses, the audience recognises that Sasa is a grim portrayal of what the future may hold for Tina unless she is able to free herself.
There is a parallel between the two characters’ beginnings and the difference in their endings. Through this, the film highlights the importance of choice.
The film is riddled with metaphors and symbolism. The image of dying earthworms highlights the need for the women to return to their roots, or risk completely losing sight of what is important to them.
Lu aims to challenge the negativity towards sex workers, shifting the blame away from them.
The villain throughout is not the strict, money-driven owner of the parlour, as one would expect. It is the men who take advantage of the women and view them as property purely because of their work.
The villain is the racist bigot who lives next door and hurls abuse at the girls, highlighting the increasingly xenophobic attitudes in modern Britain. The villains are the police force, who are meant to protect the girls, but instead punish them for trying to survive in an austere society.
Lu’s favourite scene in the film is the boat scene, and it is not hard to see why.
The girls are finally free, however briefly, from the claustrophobic environment of the parlour and the events which suffocate them.
It is a pivotal turning point for Tina, who realises that despite the fact her dreams were not realised, there are other paths she can pursue, and that, in the words of Lu, “if we keep working, there is always a way out.”
The receptionist shows a hidden Britain and highlights the deep irresponsibility we, as a society, have shown in the way we treat these vulnerable women.
It explores ideas of broken migrant dreams, xenophobia and prejudice towards sex workers who are often victims of circumstance.
If you would like to help women in these situations please visit either of these charities to find out how.
The Receptionist is in cinemas now and is showing at HOME Manchester on Thursday July 26.