I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Gloomy and bitter, authentic and essential, The Receptionist is a wretched litany of economic desperation, forgotten women, and the false promises of globalism and end-stage capitalism. An auspicious feature debut from up-and-coming Taiwanese writer-director Jenny Lu, this anti–fairy tale — based on actual events — is the story of Tina (Teresa Daley: Transformers: Age of Extinction), a Taiwanese immigrant and recent university graduate in London who, despite her excellent educational credentials and endless searching, cannot find a job. When her boyfriend, Frank (Josh Whitehouse), is laid off from his architectural firm and the rent on their shared flat is coming due, she reluctantly accepts work as a receptionist — and cleaner, and cook, and general dogsbody — at, ahem, a “massage parlor” in an unassuming house on a quiet street.
The brothel is a grim, stuffy place: Lu ensures we are as stifled as the women onscreen are by the closed windows and drawn drapes, necessary to allay neighbors’ suspicions about what is going on in the house. But the suffocation of The Receptionist isn’t only physical but psychological as well. Tina’s understandable misgivings about the job, compounded by the fact that she’s been lying to Frank about where she goes every day, infect her relationships with the all-business madam, Lily (Sophie Gopsill), and prostitutes Mei (Amanda Fan), bubbly and sweet, and Sasa (Shiang-chyi Chen), older and jaded. Even their eventual bonding over their shared predicament — cemented by dangerous encounters with mobsters demanding their cut and a “helper” who turns out to be not the kindly man he seems — feels more like forlorn clinging to one another amidst horrors to be endured than genuine friendship. Even the arrival of naive Anna (Shuang Teng), a new immigrant in London even more desperate than Tina was for work, engenders more pity than sympathy from the others, though even pity might be a stretch.
There’s nothing the least bit sexy or uplifting in anything we see in The Receptionist: even the “best” clients — the ones who aren’t violent and who do pay up — are disgusting and pathetic; the women are not empowered by their work but demeaned by it. Lu’s empathy for the women is clear-eyed yet practical: there is little hope to be found in their stories. There is no way to win the zero-sum game they’ve been forced to play. They can only stop playing… which isn’t much of an option. This is a brutal critique of the state of the world in 2018, and its narrow perspective on that nevertheless feels very wide indeed.