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Jenny Lu’s The Receptionist lets us know we’re in London through a series of establishing shots: recognisable landmarks amongst a sea of towering buildings, shot through cinematographer Gareth Munden’s hazy lens. It’s a place we all recognise, but this time it’s home to a story we don’t.
Lu’s characters are Asian women who are often made to feel small and invisible in these busy streets, especially when it comes to on-screen depiction. Here, they are not side-lined ― they are centred.
Tina (Teresa Daley) is a Taiwanese graduate tied to London by her British boyfriend. She wanders the streets searching for a job and finds one: a receptionist post in an illegal massage parlour in which a group of Asian women work as prostitutes. She takes the job reluctantly and only because she has no other option. It is clear that Tina at first looks down on the women she works with, internalising society’s disdain for sex workers. She acts stand-offish around them and hides the truth of her job from her boyfriend. However, the film takes the well worn narrative course of throwing a protagonist into an unfamiliar world and, as an audience surrogate, allowing them to warm to their new environment. The film’s low-contrast cinematography is interrupted only when Tina enters the bedrooms in the brothel, and the red wallpaper is blindingly garish ― interrupting her calm and ordered life, and challenging the values that she holds.
Earlier this year Jane Campion released a second season of her acclaimed detective series Top of the Lake. Despite its thematic and technical brilliance, I had one issue with the show: it too chose a brothel of Asian women as its subject matter, but mishandled that subject.
Campion attempted to expose exploitation, but her gaze on these women was definitively that of a white women ― othering and patronising. The Receptionist is a perfect antidote, and an example of what a welcome relief it can be to have an Asian woman in the director’s chair. Lu’s perspective is a necessary one, all too underrepresented in cinema. Her characters are varied and portrayed with sympathy and respect.
Despite the film being about sex work, the women are never seen fully nude. In fact, sex is hardly every shown, and when it is the women’s bodies are never lingered on.
Lu’s filmmaking actively avoids sensationalism, instead focusing on her characters’ boredom as they wait around for their next job. As they become acquainted with each other, Lu allows the camera to drift around the space without cutting. In one scene, Tina cooks breakfast and is accompanied by Sasa (Shiang-chyi Chen) and Mei (Amanda Fan) who wander around the kitchen, talking and tasting the food. Lu allows the women to exist in a space together, their low-key, natural interactions speaking volumes about their characters and their various clashing dynamics.
There is tragedy in the film, and its impact is heart-wrenching. Yet, Lu recognises that the violence these women undergo is not the most interesting thing about them. She refrains from showing much of it, instead focusing on their recuperation and resilience in its aftermath ― and the way in which they help each other.
The Receptionist exposes the western world’s fetishisation of Asian women, but it is most interested in the internal lives of the women that this corrosive racism and sexism impacts. Their bodies are desired, but otherwise they are ignored. To counter this, Lu’s ensemble drama centres them completely, spending very little time on any other characters. She shows how, despite how the outside world treats them, they find empowerment in the small community they have created with each other.