The opening images of Nick Broomfield’s “Ghosts” create the perfect visual metaphor for experience of entering a foreign land. A van drives alone across a vast beach, the tide laps upon the sand, soon the van is almost completely underwater while its occupants panic on the roof. The ground has been taken out from under them in a land that lacks familiarity, certainty and security.
A fictional account of the lead up to the tragic drowning of 23 Chinese immigrants in England in February of 2004, “Ghosts” is an extremely sincere depiction of the immigrant experience. Its core story isn’t particularly better or worse than those of most other films about the immigrant experience, but it captures certain moments with gripping clarity.
The story is built around Ai Qin (Ai Qin Lin) a young single mother who sees the promise of a better life in England, where she can make enough to provide for her baby, whom she leaves in China with her parents. After borrowing $25,000 to pay to be smuggled from England on a six-month truck-and-freight trip, the immigrants discover that they aren’t making as much as they thought, and what they do make amounts to nothing when after their rent and the money that they have to send home to pay off their debt.
While the title suggests a metaphor for the unseen and ignored immigrants, it also references the Chinese people’s term for the white people who use them when it’s convenient, but wish they weren’t around the rest of the time.
Unlike in the sensationalist first-person documentaries for which he’s known (“Kurt and Courtney,” “Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam”), writer/director Broomfield shoots uses an unintrusive handheld camera for a realist feel more likely to be identified with other documentarians. To add authenticity, the generally effective cast consists of non-actors with real-life background in the subject matter.
Ai Qin and her friends, however, still sometimes feel more like victims created to make political points than real people. She and her friends cry a lot on screen to subtly remind us that their lives, in which they’re separated from their families and exploited, are not pleasant. But other films have committed worse crimes of bluntness. There are more drastic opportunities offered to Ai Qin that she turns down, serving as a wise reminder that people in desperate situations won’t always resort to anything.
“Ghosts” also explores the hierarchy of the over-crowded house, which contains 12 tenants and a boss couple who sleep in their own room and have first dibs on the bathroom. While the ultimately good-natured Mr. Lin (Zhan Yu) acts like a big shot with connections, he is merely another immigrant struggling to survive. He pays most of the others’ rent to the white landlord, Robert (Shaun Gallagher), who causes him grief in other areas as well. Mr. Lin’s girlfriend, who tries to elevate herself above her “peasant” housemates, sleeps with Robert as revenge for Mr. Lin’s continued proclamations of love to his wife and kids in China.
Broomfield’s most impressive moments are in capturing experiences, including the over-abbreviated human-transport sequence and the opening and closing sequences that recreate the tragedy that inspired the film. The living quarters and working conditions in meat packing plants, farms and the incredibly racist cockling industry vividly come to life. This isn’t a movie to watch while devouring a bag of popcorn unless you have a stomach of steel or enjoy watching globs of random meat and unclean bathrooms as you swallow.