Ghosts (15)

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There's one phantom you shouldn't even bother looking for in Nick Broomfield's Ghosts: the director himself. Whether it's documentaries about white supremacists or Hollywood hookers, we've become used to seeing in Broomfield's work the man himself, or rather his persona: the documentarist as overgrown Boy Scout, poking his trademark boom mike where it isn't welcome. His method has sparked hosts of exhibitionistic imitators, a "gonzo-doc" school whose disciples include Louis Theroux, Michael Moore and - stretching the definition of documentary somewhat - Sacha Baron Cohen. Even before it caught on, however, one suspects that his approach was already becoming an albatross for Broomfield, whose audiences have grown to expect buffoonish entertainment, as well as enlightenment.

You won't find much entertainment in Ghosts, nor much Broomfield. He remains scrupulously hidden in this unrelentingly bleak film, a fictionalised backstory to a real event: the deaths of 23 Chinese cockle gatherers in Morecambe Bay in February 2004. Ghosts is neither entirely a fiction, because it purports to depict typical, if not specific facts; nor what we commonly think of as docu-drama, because there's none of that interpolated documentary material (interviews, voice-overs) that have come to identify the style, at least in its TV manifestation. To be precise, Ghosts offers a detailed evocation of a damning phenomenon: the systematic exploitation in the West of illegal immigrant workers.

Scripted by Broomfield and Jez Lewis, Ghosts follows a typical case: Ai Qin, a young woman who travels alone from China, hoping to earn money for her family. After paying an extortionate fee to a people smuggler, she gets in a van, and the film tracks her six-month journey to England in the time-honoured form of a red line snaking across the map, via Kazakhstan, Belgrade and Calais.

Ai Qin's ordeal is only starting: the moment she arrives in London, Chinese hoods tell her to phone home and get her outstanding debt paid, or else. This story of migrant suffering could have been told at any time in the past century, if not for the poignant role played by mobile phones: Ai Qin's occasional calls home only emphasise the isolation of her exile. She promptly falls into the hands of loutish gangmaster Mr Lin (Zhan Yu), who puts her up in an overcrowded house in a dreary Suffolk suburb. Bribes to agency workers secure gruelling work for Ai Qin and her housemates. The film's title, Ghosts, refers to the casualties of Morecambe, as well as to the Chinese term for white Westerners, but there's one shot in which Ai Qin and co truly seem like walking dead. After a hard day preparing ducks at a meat-packing plant (a grisly metaphor for a merciless system that guts and discards humans), Ai Qin and her co-workers sleepwalk home through deserted streets at 1am.

Ai Qin's story, informed by the researches of Broomfield and of journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai, is presented with few stylistic or rhetorical trimmings. The catalogue of horrors is so stark that anti-immigration factions could almost use Ghosts as propaganda to deter anyone from ever coming here again: this island comes across as hostile, heartless, squalidly grubby, quite apart from the lousy weather. As for the English, the reason the Chinese venture onto the perilous sands at night is because they are driven off the main cockling patch by rival local workers, bellowing at them from their beach buggies.

Usually, a fiction film is said to be documentary-styled if it uses hand-held camera and dwells on the unkempt side of life: Ghosts qualifies there. But what distinguishes it from conventional fiction is the fact that it doesn't have what script manuals call an "arc". Contingent events simply befall Ai Qin, over which she has no control - though she's not passive, she's forced to survive her circumstances, but unable to change them. The nearest the film gets to a dramatic character is Mr Lin, a sleazy boor who offers Ai Qin a massage parlour job in exchange for favours. Yet even he emerges as a semi-sympathetic victim himself, leaned on in turn by a hulking English gangster. In one of the film's few moments of light relief (a rather Loachian touch), Lin smilingly raises a glass to his oppressor, and the subtitle reads, "Up yours baldy, I hope you choke."

It's important to distinguish Broomfield's fiction from the reality. As the end captions tell us, 23 workers died in Morecambe, whereas we see only a handful. Also, while the film's lead is also called Ai Qin, this is not strictly her story: the real-life Ai Qin Lin is a non-professional actor, whose own experience as a smuggled immigrant is similar but not identical to her character's. We have to take it as read that Ghosts is simply showing a representative, rather than an actual case, but its detached, unemotional approach carries a compelling polemical weight. The film points the finger at supermarket chains - Sainsbury's, Tesco and Asda are mentioned by name - whose codes of practice may not in themselves be unethical, but which are implicated in the chain of labour that exploits illegal immigrants (which means that, by extension, Ghosts also accuses us, the consumers).

As a piece of realist drama, Ghosts makes no attempt to be stylistically interesting - no more so than a solidly researched piece of newspaper reportage - but the film is vivid, painful and uncomfortable, just as a newspaper story can be. At the very least, Ghosts is highly admirable - and, unless you're expecting high-jinks from the man with the mike, that's in no way a damning assessment.