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Behind the Screen: The harrowing true-life story behind ‘The Receptionist’

Director Jenny Lu reveals how London’s seedy underbelly inspired her hard-hitting new drama

By Anna Smith
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Around ten years ago, a young Taiwanese filmmaker called Jenny Lu was living in London, often hanging out in Chinatown with friends. One of them was a Chinese girl called Anna. In 2009, Anna killed herself. Jenny was floored – and the story she uncovered led to her first feature film, ‘The Receptionist’.

‘I found out that Anna was working as a masseuse in [a London brothel],’ she says. ‘This shocked me, because I didn’t know anything about it. Something must have happened to her in that place. I decided to speak to her colleagues and find out what happened.’ Initially, the women were reluctant, but Jenny’s passion won through. ‘I explained to them: it’s all for Anna. Then they started to open up.’

‘I needed to tell these stories because this
is going on every day’

While ‘The Receptionist’ tells Anna’s story, many of its harrowing episodes with clients and employers are based on tales from her colleagues in brothels. ‘They were working in various parlours at different times, so all the different events are related to real events. I felt quite ashamed that this had actually happened to my friend,’ admits Lu. ‘Then I felt: Right, I need to show this. I need to tell their stories to more people. Because this is going on every day.’

Teresa Daley as Tina in 'The Receptionist'. The character was based on the director, Jenny Lu’s friend

Lu successfully approached the Taiwanese government for funds and raised £25,000 in a Kickstarter campaign. ‘A lot of strangers donated, because they found this subject is rarely discussed and they wanted to know more about it.’

Even the actresses found the script hard to believe – so Lu took them to real massage parlours and sent them in to be interviewed for jobs. ‘We’d walk around in Chinatown and there was a massage place and I said, “Right, you go in and I’ll wait outside.” And they went in and were really shocked. They said, “Wow, it’s so similar to the script.” I think one of the bosses actually asked them for a massage. They realised this is all real.’

Lu has more films in the works, and says that Anna is always in the back of her mind. ‘I dedicated this film to her. Every time when I look at the credits I always feel, well: this is for you.’ 

‘The Receptionist’ opens Fri Jul 20.

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