On 5 February 2004, twenty-four Chinese cockle pickers drowned in Morecambe Bay, Lancashire. The fact that made the headlines was that they were in the UK illegally, having come to the country in the hope of a higher wage than they could possibly earn at home. This brought home to many people how much immigrant workers form the backbone of many industries…and how much they are exploited.
Ai Qin (played by Ai Qin Lin) lives with her parents and young son in Fujian Province, China. As a rural worker she earns the equivalent of £30 per month. Desperate for a better life for her and her son, she takes the opportunity to travel to Britain to find work there.
Nick Broomfield has a long and distinguished, if often controversial, track record in documentaries, which often become personalised essays. Ghosts is only his second dramatic feature, the first being the unsuccessful and little seen Diamond Skulls of 1989. There’s more than a nod to Ken Loach in this film, which despite being a fictionalised account of what is ultimately a true story, takes pains to look as authentic as possible. The cast are all non-professionals and none of the dialogue was scripted. Ai Qin Lin had been herself an illegal immigrant, but she had since received asylum. Zhan Yu, who played Mr Lin, the leader of the immigrants, was in real life a restaurant owner. The scenes in the factories were intensively researched, and the house that the immigrants live in is a real one which the cast stayed in during the production. Shooting in HD, at times Broomfield takes cinema verité to considerable lengths. In a fight between British and Chinese cocklers on Morecambe Beach, not only water but mud gets splashed on the camera lens.
Like Michael Winterbottom’s similarly-themed In This World, Ghosts (the title from the Chinese term for white Westerners) is a film ripped from the headlines. For every “asylum seeker” demonised by the tabloids, this film shows you a human being simply trying to make the best for him or herself. And in many cases paying for it with their lives. Ghosts is an affecting experience.
Tartan’s DVD of Ghosts is a dual-layered PAL format disc, encoded for all regions. The DVD transfer is anamorphically enhanced, with very thin black bars top and bottom making for a ratio of 1.85:1. The film was originated on HD before being transferred to 35mm for cinema showings. The image is generally quite sharp, occasional softness and visual noise due more to the use of natural light than the format. Certainly colours are lifelike and shadow detail is acceptable.
Three soundtracks are provided, as is often the case with Tartan releases: 5.1 mixes in Dolby Digital and DTS, plus an analogue Dolby Surround track. The 5.1 mixes use a lot of directional sound, which may well have been recorded live, with considerable use of the surrounds for ambience, particularly noticeable in the factory scenes. In the reverse of the usual practice, the Dolby Digital track is mixed higher than the DTS equivalent, but otherwise there’s nothing to choose between them.
Most of the dialogue is in Mandarin with the remainder in English. The optional subtitles cover the Mandarin dialogue only and are only available on the main feature. Proper hard-of-hearing subtitles would have been welcome too.
There is no commentary on this disc, but there’s plenty of input from Nick Broomfield in the main extra, “The Making of Ghosts” (64:22). This is a personal project by Marc Hoeferlin , who was a fan of Broomfield and who met him at a festival in Hay on Wye, a contact that resulted in his being hired to produce the making-of documentary. This is longer than many such pieces, and covers a lot of ground. We see interviews in China with family members of real-life victims of the tragedy. As part of his research, Broomfield took Ai Qin Lin into a real immigrants’ houses and into factories staffed by illegal workers. Covert footage is included in the making-of, with faces and name badges blanked out. We also see much of the filming on a real estate in Thetford, where the fictional immigrant house was. Many of the locals assumed this was real! All in all, this is a well-put-together featurette, which ends where it begins, with the film being presented at the 2006 Hay on Wye festival. The only other extra is the theatrical trailer (2:24) which is remarkable for the amount of footage which is not in the main feature. Both are anamorphic, which fixed subtitles on black backgrounds to translate exchanges in Mandarin.
Ghosts is a film that shows the human face of a subject often buried under tabloid hysteria. Tartan’s disc shows it to good effect.