The Receptionist

 

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A writer-director from Taiwan provides a disturbing view of London life.

 
The Receptionist

Teresa Daley

  

Films that portray prostitution have often felt like exploitative ventures but no such charge can be made against The Receptionist. The film’s writer/director Jenny Lu who comes from Taiwan has declared that she was prompted to make this first feature because a Chinese friend, who had been hiding the fact that she had been working in the sex industry, committed suicide in London after which her story emerged. Indeed, the character based on her friend is present in The Receptionist, albeit not as the main character, but her suicide is nevertheless incorporated towards the end of the story. However, in writing the screenplay with Yeh Yi-Wen, Lu had chosen as her central figure a Taiwanese graduate, Tina (Teresa Daley). We find her in London in 2008 but unable to find work: when she is offered a post in a suburban brothel as its receptionist, she quickly rejects the idea. However, she has to think again when her English boyfriend, Frank (Joshua Whitehouse) gets the sack from his job. She tells herself that this work would be temporary and is distinct from actual prostitution and it is the one way open to her to find the rent for the place she shares with Frank.

 

Teresa Daley is well cast in the central role and we are clearly invited to sympathise with Tina. Even so, Lu refuses to be one-sided in her characterisations: Tina’s needs lead to her stealing money from one of the girls while the three prostitutes employed are portrayed as victims with a strong need for money themselves and are never reduced to being one dimensional figures. Even the hard-hearted madam (Sophie Gopsill) is driven by a determination to avoid poverty and it is the men behind the set-up who are the real villains of the piece.

 

Lu’s cast is an able one and, without excluding frankness (the movie has an 18 certificate), her portrayal of life in a brothel is presented in everyday terms that are persuasive and make for valid social comment. It all seems real enough to allow a crisis scene to have genuine emotional force (this is when Tina’s boyfriend discovers that, contrary to what she has been telling him, she has been working in a brothel: when he learns about the brothel he assumes the worst and their confrontation scene is painful to watch). Such episodes seem to confirm that The Receptionist will emerge as a very good film indeed, but then unexpectedly the last quarter of an hour loses focus. To accommodate the suicide that inspired it, the film temporarily pushes Tina to one side and in any case the death fits rather uneasily into material that calls out for better shaping. Instead of winding up in London as we expect, the scene suddenly switches to Taiwan and then has to incorporate a brief flashback to London to illustrate information contained in a letter. This lack of an effective shape is made the more obvious because, while a touch of symbolism in a preface seems quite acceptable, to bring it back twice later into what has become by now a naturalistic treatment feels ill-judged - and so too does repetition of a contrived parallel drawn between the East Asian women depicted and earthworms destined to die if they leave the soil for too long. But, even if these final scenes are weaker, The Receptionist is very good for much of its length and it is undeniably heartfelt.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Teresa Daley, Chen Shiang-Chyi, Amanda Fan, Shuang Teng, Sophie Gopsill, Joshua Whitehouse, Stephen Pucci, Lorraine Stanley.

 

Dir Jenny Liu, Pro Chang Chin, Chiou Zi Ning, Shuang Teng and Peter J. Kirby, Screenplay Jenny Liu and Yeh Yi-Wen, Ph Gareth Munden, Pro Des Kane Silks, Ed Hoping Chen, Music Lu Lu-Ming, Costumes Maree Choi, Raphael Mann and Sun Hui-Mei.

 

Mirror Stage Films/British Film Company/Uncanny Films & Dark Horse Image-Munro Film Services.
102 mins. UK/Taiwan. 2016. Rel: 20 July 2018. Cert. 18.