The Receptionist (Jie Xian Yuan, Taiwan-UK 2016)

Teresa Daley as Tina (left) and Chen Shiang-Chyi as SaSa

This is a fine picture from a writer-director making her début. Jenny Lu began in the industry in 2011 and graduated from assistant/second director to make first a short and then this feature. She benefited from film festival support in developing the script and production. I’ve read some quite uninformed reviews from ‘professional’ critics and one excellent and perceptive review by IMDb ‘user’ Joe Bevan which I recommend.

The Receptionist brings together a number of familiar scenarios and references several key films (which Jenny Lu might not have seen – I’m not suggesting she borrowed ideas or that her script is not original, merely that it is recognisable). Tina (American-Taiwanese actor Teresa Daley) is an Eng Lit graduate in London searching for a job (it isn’t clear if her degree was in Taiwan or the UK). Her search becomes more urgent when her boyfriend loses his first job as an architect’s assistant. Tina must find the money to pay the rent and some to send back to Taiwan. Eventually she is forced to take a job as receptionist/dogsbody at a small brothel set up in a suburban house somewhere in London. This reminded me of the film Personal Services (UK 1987) inspired by the real-life case of Cynthia Payne in the Streatham street where I delivered the Christmas post in the 1970s. Tina’s brothel is an undertaking by ‘Lily’, a Taiwanese madam and her two workers SaSa (also Taiwanese) and Mei (Malaysian Chinese). Soon after Tina starts work, Anna (from rural China?) also starts work. What follows is part tragedy and part comedy with a mixture of brutality and humanism. Despite what some reviewers convey, not all the men who visit the house are ‘disgusting’. Some are and the violence and misogyny are there on screen. But some are sad older men who appreciate the welcome they receive. The real humanity though is expressed between the women, who despite the pressure and the squabbles over money do care for each other, despite protestations of indifference. The film’s final section deals with Tina’s eventual return to Taiwan where she becomes involved in clearing up and renewing her home town after the impact of a typhoon.

Amanda Fan as Mei

In some ways the film works as a chamber piece in the claustrophobic setting of the brothel. The claustrophobia is emphasised by the curtains and sealed up windows necessary to stop the smells and sounds of sex work reaching the neighbours. Symbolically it is represented by the worms which die in the back garden/yard – they “can’t live too long cut off from the earth” as one character puts it. (These looked to me like brandling worms which don’t live in soil but are found in compost heaps or any pile of rotting vegetation.) The function of this chamber narrative is to stimulate the women to reflect on their individual lives, their families and their ‘journeys’ which for the three younger ones are most wrapped up in migration. We don’t learn much about Lily (except that she has become pragmatic above all) and I would have liked to know more about SaSa. I think she could become the central character of another complete narrative. I wonder why Jenny Lu set her film in the UK? Her film set me thinking about several other films I’ve seen over the last few years. Farewell China (Hong Kong 1990, dir. Clara Law) is one of the earliest, following Maggie Cheung’s difficult journey to the US and her husband’s subsequent attempt to find her there. Nick Broomfield’s Ghosts (UK 2006) tells the story of the Chinese cockle-pickers who died in Morecambe Bay and A Fallible Girl (UAE-China-UK 2013) deals with Chinese migrants living a marginal life in the United Arab Emirates. I was also reminded of Lilting (UK 2013) a micro-budget British film about a Chinese diasporic character by British-Cambodian-Chinese director Hong Khaou which though a very different kind of narrative has a similar power to expose an audience to life for migrant characters.

Alongside Teresa Daley, director Lu has assembled a fascinating cast for The Receptionist. Sophie Gopsill as Lily is a Hong Kong-born singer who has appeared in many opera houses and theatres in South East Asia and in the UK where she has lived for several years. SaSa is played by Chen Shiang-Chyi an accomplished and celebrated actor who first worked in Taiwan for Edward Yang in the early 1990s and then for Tsai Ming-liang. More recently she was the lead in Exit (Taiwan 2014) in a very different role in which she was equally good. Teng Shuang who plays Anna appears to British-Chinese? She trained as a lawyer but decided to pursue her love of acting. After shorts and theatre work this is her first feature. It’s also a first feature for Amanda Fan, an experienced Taiwanese actor whose previous credits have all been in Taiwanese TV series. The Taiwanese-UK connection is carried through in the production by editor Hoping Chen, whose career began in Taiwan and who then studied at the National Film and TV School in the UK and edited another form of migrant film in Ilo, Ilo (Singapore 2013).

I hope audiences aren’t put off by the setting of The Receptionist or its ’18’ certificate. I think is a very worthwhile first feature and I hope we get to see more films exploring the migrant experience. The film is showing at the Regent Street Cinema in London on August 14 with a Q&A. Well done to Munro Film Services for getting The Receptionist into UK distribution.

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