Dir: Nick Broomfield. UK.2006. 96mins.
Labelled as fiction but closer in spirit to thedocumentaries he is best known for, Nick Broomfield's Ghosts initially looks like a milder version of Michael Winterbottom's Berlin winner In This World. But then this San Sebastian opener seems to segueinto Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation, with touches of Ken Loach, as it unfurls itsstory, loosely drawn from the real-life deaths of 23 illegal Chinese immigrantswho drowned while cockle-picking on the north English coast in 2004.
Using non-actors - mostlyillegal residents in Britain - who speak more Chinese than English, Broomfield'spicture adds yet another angle to the increasingly numerous works about thedire fate of Eastern immigration to the West.
Honest, modest andenormously well intentioned, Ghostswas originally conceived as a Channel 4 TV movie, which is the format that willsuit it best. A festival opening night might be just a bit too much of aresponsibility for its purposely unassuming shoulders, but it does serve as aperfect leader to one of San Sebastian's main sidebars this year, dedicated to immigration.Theatrical potential is limited with the exception of thematic programmes, but itshould have better than average response for TV sales.
Ai Qin(Ai Qin Lin), a young Chinese woman, borrows $25,000to pay for illegal passage to UK. Once there, she is assured, she will easilymake back that sum of money plus all she needs to sustain her baby, left in hercare after her husband went to live with another woman.
After a horrendous six-monthvoyage, on which Broomfield barely touches, she lands in the "promised land",only to find nothing looks as promised. Grey, cold and unfriendly, the initialreception there is made even more shocking by the fact that it not only theBritish who turn a very cold shoulder. In the best traditions of age-oldslavery, it is the veteran slaves already established in these wretchedroutines who exploit and mistreat the newcomers, while pretending to show themthe ropes and how to bribe the British into providing them with work, officialresidency papers or not.
Jobs are mostly found in thefood industry, for which the newcomers are paid a fraction of the legal pay -and even then swindled out of more than half of it. Ai Qinends up sharing a slum flat with 12 other Chinese workers, sleeping on mattresseslaid down on the floor and being pushed around and chaperoned every minute ofthe day by their Chinese boss, Lin (Zhan Yu).
First she works at a meatfactory, packaging food for supermarkets, where she works inhuman hours, seesher weekly pay dented by imaginary taxes and exorbitant rent and obedientlytake orders from Lin and his female bed partner Chiao(Man Qin Wei).
Ai Qinalso lives in constant fear of being thrown out by their landlord, a leatherjacketed, gold chained hood by the name of Robert(Shaun Gallagher), who uses Chiao for his own comfortwhenever he feels the urge.
Following complaints byBritish neighbours who can't abide them, Lin has to leave his quarters and takehis proteges to Morecambe Bay in northern England. There, he puts them to work pickingcockles on the beach until they are beaten up by local workers who resent the competition.Left with no other choice, Lin's people attempt to do their cockle pickingafter sunset, only to be caught out by the notorious tide which seals theirfate.
Ghosts is a remarkably accurate portrait of the modernimmigrant experience, with situations that are not just particular to theChinese in Britain. While some immigrants may emerge from their extendedpurgatory with a Western permit, others will be sent back home and bear thescars, physical and psychological, for the rest of their lives.
Unlike most pictures of thegenre, Broomfield refrains from big confrontational scenes, with the possibleexception of the sequence showing the police breaking into the flat occupied bythe immigrants. The life of Ai Qin and her friends isjust as unexceptional, as dreary and dismal as that of any of the other migrantworkers being herded from one temporary job to another, living their dailyhumiliations from one pay cheque to the next and kept alive by the weekly phonecall back home that they can barely afford. Sure, they have their momentarydistractions and laughs, but it's far from enough relief from the dailydrudgery they have to endure.
Though there are a few spectacularshots along the way, such as the black waves spreading like predatory animalsover the deserted beach at night, Broomfield opts most of the time for asimple, documentary-type visual approach, stressing the dreadful accumulationof miseries rather than any single momentous event.
Working with non-actorsre-enforces the picture's authenticity, though at times it does have itsdrawbacks. Ai Qin Lin has a strong screen presence,but her lack of dramatic training does show, once in a while, particularly insome of the frequent over-emotional effusions.
Zhan Liu, on the other hand,displays a natural talent for throwing shifty suggestive glances, blendingarrogance, responsibility and meekness in just the right combination for thecharacter of the slave master who is not much more than a slave himself.
based on work by Hsiao-Hung Pai
Ai Qin Lin
Man Qin wei
Yong Aing Zhai