Opening the San Sebastian film festival on a note of heartfelt solidarity with the dispossessed, which is in keeping with fest’s “Emigrants” sidebar, “Ghosts” joins the growing ranks of titles that sympathetically and a bit predictably deal with illegal immigration in Europe. Using a cast of non-pros to recreate the true story of 23 illegal Chinese migrants who drowned off the coast of England in 2004, film’s unquestionable sincerity in denouncing exploitation, coupled with its attractive heroine traumatically separated from her small son and a dramatic nighttime finale at sea, should give it human interest appeal for small screen audiences.
Maverick documaker Nick Broomfield is known for his eccentric first-person docus and showy celeb portraits of Aileen Wuornos and Tupac Shakur. In contrast to those pics, Broomfield chooses the highly uncontroversial route of fictionalizing one of the many tragedies involving the migratory waves sweeping over the old continent for “Ghosts.”
The director’s documentary roots show in his decision to use non-pro actors who have lived through ordeals similar to “Ghosts'” story, along with real locations, costumes and so on. Ai Qin (Ai Qin Lin) is a single mother from the provinces who, like many other poor Chinese, agrees to pay $25,000 in installments to money lenders to be smuggled into the U.K.
She can’t support her baby if she stays with her family, but one senses she is also dazzled by the money lenders’ blithe babble about getting rich quick.
Tearfully leaving her infant son and dear ones behind, young Ai Qin embarks on an incredible six-month bus journey overland. This part is pragmatically rushed through via a moving line on a map, just like in Michael Winterbottom’s “In This World.” The main story begins when she reaches England.
Taken under the wing of Mr. Lin (Zhan Yu), an oafish but basically good-hearted boss, the girl finds lodging in the suburbs with 13 other migrant workers. Her career unfolds in a grating first job in a duck-packing plant that is shot like a surprisingly straight version of the chicken factory in Ruth Mader’s “Struggle,” relaxes in gigs of apple and onion picking, and ends in sickening racism when Mr. Lin’s little clan is driven out of their overcrowded house.
Final act, which is unwisely anticipated in pic’s opening scenes, shows their dramatic adventure in the cold waters of the north, while they are attempting to collect cockles at night to avoid local reprisals.
The ghosts of the title are the Westerners they meet, who almost universally exploit them, from their pimpish landlord (Shaun Gallagher) and the staff at an employment agency, to those who employ them as cheap labor. With the odds stacked so high against them, it’s impossible not to root for them, particularly the bravely determined Ai Qin Lin and comic Zhan Yu.
Still there is a spongy feeling that the characters are less real individuals than representatives of a social phenomenon. In the tussle between documentary and fiction, it is too often the former that wins out.
Only in the truly terrifying final scenes, shot as barely illuminated nighttime by Mark Wolf as the tides roll in, does the story become riveting and center stage. Wolf’s cinematography has a startling sharpness in general and pays careful attention to putting the characters against a backdrop, be it claustrophobic interiors or the great, unlimited outdoors. Winterbottom’s regular d.p. Marcel Zyskind lensed the story’s bookends in a warmly lit China.