I saw this film at the Sydney Film Festival last night.

Like Tony Ayres’ The Love Song Stories, this film is based on a true story.  In this case it is a fictionalised back story of how a group of Chinese immigrant workers came to be cockling at Morecambe Bay off Lancashire one night in February 2004.  23 of them were drowned by the incoming tide.

It was made for Channel 4 by “Nick Broomfield, the veteran documentary filmmaker.” He used non-professional actors, many of whom, we are told, had been or were illegal immigrants to the UK themselves.  The film starts with the gang driving out onto the sands at dusk under a stormy sky, the tide coming in, and Ai Qin (who we later learn to be the central character) standing on the roof of the almost-submerged van and phoning home with her mobile.  After asking whether the money-lender has been around (for the repayment of the loan taken out to finance her clandestine passage to the UK, as we later learn), she asks to be put on to her baby son, Bebe, to whom she sings a song.

This provides the link to the beginning of the back-story in Fujian.  Ai Qin, deserted by her husband and unable to find any but the most meagrely paid work, decides to go to England to earn money to support her son (she is too proud to take money from his father).  For this, the people smuggler will charge her $25,000 ($US, I think, although I don’t have a clear-enough recollection of the Chinese dialogue to now be sure).  She pays a deposit of 5,000 RMB (Chinese dollars: Renminbi) and, after a tearful farewell, is on her way.  After a six-month cross-continental journey, on payment of the full fee back in China to the people smugglers (confirmed by them by mobile phone) she is handed over to the gangmaster, a fellow Chinese who runs a former council house full of similar Chinese “illegals,” arranges their forged documents (for a price, of course), and fixes them up with work through a labour hire company.

There follows a catalogue of the the usual exploitations of the illegal migrant worker: a shaking down at every possible point; a succession of low-grade and low-paid (and even lower paid becaue they are “black” workers) jobs; bullying from the gangmaster.  The group of Chinese workers live together in an overcrowded council house in provincial England – in England, but not part of it.  But actually, they are a part of it, which is really the agit-prop point of the film: after a day of back-breaking work picking shalotts destined for ASDA, Sainsburys and Tesco, they go shopping in a supermarket but are unable to afford the shalotts which they could very well have picked themselves.

Eventually their house is raided – neighbours have complained about the overcrowding and, not surprisingly, immigration status is also an issue.  They travel north to take up cockling, but here, too, they are unwelcome and hustled off by locals from their turf (actually, of course, sand).  Which brings us to where the film began, and explains why, when the “Ghosts” (aka guilao/gweilo, that is, the white men) won’t go out, they are heading out onto the sands at dusk under a stormy February sky.

Reviews and publicity-generated articles I have tracked down make much of Ai Qin, who plays the central young woman in Ghosts, also called Ai Qin.  We are told that she herself was an illegal immigrant in England and separated from her son (the story must really be more complicated, because she seems to have made an asylum application at some stage which she doesn’t want to talk about) and her performance is praised.  For my money, the strongest performance came from the actor who played the gangmaster.  Tellingly, though he bullied (and sometimes cajoled) his gang, he was only one link above them in the chain of exploitation and vulnerability. He too had to wheedle with the employment agency, and he took the brunt of the bashing by the locals at Morecambe.   Though hardly an attractive character, he was played with a certain almost Chaucerian comic breadth in his awfulness, and was always interesting to watch.  Ai Qin, by comparison, was played to pluck our heart strings, including (one of two false notes) when she wrote her son’s name in the condensation of a window: “BEBE.”  Surely she would have written in Chinese characters.

We saw this film after we saw The Love Song Stories.  D found The Love Song Stories boring and I too found it slow at times, but neither of us found Ghosts slow.  It was much more diverting than The Love Song Stories,  at least while we were watching it, though maybe less thought-provoking in the long run.  I think this is because few of the “revelations” about the situation in which such people find themselves were new to me, and nor for D, who in his early days as an adult immigrant to Australia had his share of underpaid immigrant “black” work. 

The Love Song Stories is a true story which has been dramatised, which necessarily means fictionalised, and has all the artifices of “Art.”  Ghosts is more like traditional historical fiction: its characters are not the actual people who died at Morecambe Bay, but fictional characters very like them (the old “fictional character right next to the historical event” gambit), but it is presented in the now familiar style of the quasi-documentary – hand held cameras, improvised dialogue, etc.

Ghosts had a picaresque aspect which always moved the story along, even if this in itself involved a certain degree of artifice.  For instance, when the workers go to a meat processing factory, we saw them working at a number of different meat processes: this provided a variety of gruesome theatre, but in real life it is more likely that the workers would have spent the whole shift on the one terrible and tedious task.  Ghosts also had a wider range of characters, none of whom ever had to be investigated so deeply, and this also gave more opportunities for humour. 

I do think that Ghosts had a clearer narrative and dramatic shape than The Love Song Stories. I suspect that, because it was fictional in a way which TLSS was not, Broomfield had greater freedom than Ayres to arrange his material to best effect.

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