A Chinese woman called Anna committed suicide in 2009 after working as a prostitute

A Taiwanese film called The Receptionist exposes London’s dark sex industry.

Directed by Jenny Lu, the film is inspired by the suicide of one of Lu’s friends. In 2009, a Chinese woman called Anna who had been working as a prostitute in an illegal massage parlour, took her own life.

Although the film is fictionalised, Lu has largely based her first feature film on Anna. The Receptionist premiered in Taiwan on Friday and at the Edinburgh Film Festival in the UK.

“I met Anna in Chinatown at a dinner gathering. She looked really normal,” recalls director Lu. “She came from a little village in China. She went to London because she wanted a better life. But she ended up living a double life that no-one knew about.”

“I felt really sad. How come no-one knew about this and no-one was able to help?”

To research Anna’s secret life, Lu tracked down women who worked with Anna at the massage parlours. Many working there were immigrants from mainland China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. Others employed women from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Japan.

Anna had arrived in the UK on a fake marriage, like many of the other women.

“She was married to a British guy but he didn’t have a job. Anna’s family had paid a lot of money to arrange this fake marriage for her. She worked really hard to try to pay back the debt and to support her brother in China,” Lu explains.

Some women arrived on fake passports looking to earn money to support their children and start a new life in the UK. However, after realising earning money wasn’t as easy as they had expected, many were forced to work in massage parlours.

The Receptionist focuses on the lives of employees and clients at a massage parlour in London and is explored through the eyes of a Taiwanese graduate employed as a parlour receptionist.

The actors initially didn’t believe the script. So I arranged for them to meet the women,” Lu said.

Clients were charged £120 for sexual intercourse but the parlour owner would keep 50%-60% of it.

“They always say they want to leave after a year or a few months… but they get used to making quick money,” Lu explains. “They don’t want to choose other jobs where they can’t earn as much. They think: ‘How can I afford to keep living if I don’t do this?'”

“It’s a dangerous mindset. It’s like a hole they dig for themselves. So many people can’t get out.”

Many of the women feared to go outside incase their neighbours discovered what they were doing. Some worked throughout the day and night.

“What surprised me was that many of the women had never actually seen any London landmarks,” said Lu.

Anna was only 35 years old when she killed herself. She was  in the UK for two years and was working in the sex industry for about a year.

“Some of her friends think she got pressured because her family kept asking for money,” the director says. “Others thought she couldn’t accept the job she was doing, so every day was a struggle.”

“And a friend had borrowed money from her to open a restaurant. When she asked for the money back, that friend threatened to tell her family what she did for a living. She was panicky.”

“She thought about her family a lot; she hadn’t really wanted to go abroad.”

The Receptionist has been nominated for several international awards, including the Milan International Film Awards and Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards.

“I’m delighted people feel something after watching the film,” Lu says. “The message I want to send is even if you’ve walked far and chased your dream for so long, turn back and look at where you came from, what your initial dream was. Many people forget.”