‘The Receptionist’ asks how much we really know about the people around us

Migrants, illegal or otherwise, are talked about a lot. But behind the statistics and scaremongering are real people, often caught in horrific circumstances. Writer-director Jenny Lu’s new film. 'The Receptionist' tells the story of women in an illegal massage parlour

How well do you know your neighbours? Do you say hi in the morning on your way to work? Do you even know what they do for a living?

My friend once told me she noticed that she had new neighbours moving in downstairs. One day, she was off work. She sat next to the window sipping her tea. She saw a gentleman pressing the buzzer downstairs and someone let him in. When she was just about to have another sip the buzzer went again. This time it was a different gentleman. He quietly stood outside, waiting, before again being let into the downstairs flat. She started to count the number of visitors. In the hour that followed she counted another five people visiting the house, all of them were men, but that seemed to be the only thing they all had in common. She started to think that something was not usual. Over the days and weeks that followed she observed the same pattern, men visiting the flat at all times of the day and night.  She thought something seedy must have been going on in that flat downstairs.

I laughed when I first heard this story. But then I learned that one of my Chinese friends had taken her own life by jumping off a pedestrian bridge outside London Heathrow Airport, and she was one of those illegal masseurs who secretly worked in a shop-turned-brothel. That was when I started to look at things differently.

What happened to her while she worked in that place? Why did she take such an extreme measure to end it all? These questions kept coming to my mind. I decided to meet up with her friends and ask to speak to some of the girls she worked with. I learned about the life she had and encountered a side of Britain that I never imagined existed. 

In most illegal massage parlours, the sex workers normally live a double life. The families of foreign girls usually rely on them to send money home. They are often exploited by their bosses. They work long hours and only receive a small percentage of their total income. They face high levels of pressure and little social support and therefore many sex workers in illegal massage parlours have mental health issues. A few masseurs have gone missing when they went to visit their clients at home but the incidents never get reported.

These facts shocked me. I felt ignorant and ashamed when I saw the tears, and the stories of abuse I was told. Could you imagine these things are happening in that little flat next to yours?

The UK, like many developed countries is often seen as a place of opportunity, where the streets are ‘paved with gold’, where people can go to try and make their fortunes and escape the harshness of their lives. These dreams are sometimes shattered once they reach this promised land, but people are too scared or too proud to go home. They then blend into the crowd or disappear from visible life altogether, but they are still part of Britain, however much they may seem to be apart from it. I decided to make a film, The Receptionist, to show what I had heard and what we don’t normally see.

In the film, Tina, a recent graduate, unable to find a job, starts working in an illegal massage parlour as a receptionist. At first she is disgusted by her job, despising the girls and clients she meets there, but as she gradually comes to know the women in this most
dysfunctional of artificial families, she sees how they struggle to find a way to make their lives work, with an undercurrent of violence and danger always lurking.

The illegal massage parlour illustrates well how we are easily defeated by this money-orientated society, how money is passed from one to another, like a never-ending circle. How we are told the more we earn, the more successful we are to be. A designer bag, or the latest iPhone, could let us gain respect. Society becomes the force that encourages us to sell our bodies and souls in exchange for status.

The Receptionist will be in cinemas from July 20
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Image: The Receptionist