This is an excellently made film, telling a very sad story.
I think the IMDB plot precis is quite amusing: “A young Chinese girl is smuggled into the UK so she can support her son and family in China” and it does not, by any stretch of the imagination, capture what the film is actually about.
The film is a fictionalised drama based on actual events that some of the actors, including the lead “young Chinese girl”, experienced. The official website has a better synopsis, but still calls the lead a “young Chinese girl”. I don’t mean to go off topic, but honestly, the lead – Ai Qin – has a young son – aged about 3/4 years (but maybe older as she takes him to school) when she leaves China at the beginning of the movie – and about 5/6 years at the end of the movie. She can’t be a girl. She just can’t. (here I stamp my feet – that’s how good my argument is)
Ghosts is about Chinese illegal immigrants in the UK, brought sharply and shockingly into the news when 23 Chinese illegal immigrants drowned while cockle picking in Morecambe Bay on 5 February 2004.
The film opens with a van full of Chinese people, driving across a grey beach, they pick cockles and the water swirls around them until all are stranded atop the van, dark waves menancingly rocking the van side to side. A shivering few use a mobile phone to call their family, and the “young Chinese girl” sings a song to her son, which segues us to the beginning of the story. We follow Ai Qin from her negotiation of her fare and passage in China, through her six month smuggled transit to UK and then in her housing and factory and farming jobs with a fake work permit, culminating in her work cockle-picking and its fatal consequences. These Chinese immigrants have indebted themselves to their smugglers, and must work to pay back their debt, send money home and cover the cost – usually exhorbitant – of their accommodation. At the end of the film, we are told that many of the families of the Morecambe Bay victims are still repaying their debts, and there is a fund that one can donate to, to assist the repayment.
There are a lot of illegal immigrants in the UK. At the moment, there seem to be a lot of concern about Polish immigrants. The newspapers reported recently that there were probably twice as many Polish immigrants in the UK than the authorities were aware of.
The use of the term “illegal immigrant” is interesting of itself. The people depicted in Ghosts are not, to my mind, illegal immigrants. They are trafficked persons. They have been misled, misinformed and are treated as no more than commodities; this is neatly symbolised by their passage inside the hull of a shipping container. They are exploited by the persons who have brought them to the UK, and by the persons who ‘look after’ them in the UK. I was very impressed with Nick Bloomfield’s representation of Mr Lin – the head of the Chinese workers that the lead character is placed with. He is exploiter – but he, too, has his own difficulties in the UK. He swaggers when we see him first, but his eyes cloud over and his shoulders droop as he struggles to find work for himself and his fellow immigrants.
The film touches upon a number of issues, which provides a real-ness to the experience of Ai Qin. There is racism, of course, but there are also moments of fun and camaraderie: although I am not so persuaded that a day apple-picking is actually fun. Racism is depicted in many forms: from the mundanity of Ai Qin’s fake work permit bearing the picture of a another Chinese woman, to the neighbours who spit on the ground as the Chinese immigrants walk past, to the group of English cockle-pickers who assault the Chinese immigrants for picking in “their spot”. The film title is also apt – and with myriad interpretations: coould it refer to what the Chinese immigrants themselves call white English people, or does it refer to their unseen status as illegal immigrants?
Underlining Ai Qin’s precarious position is the constant threat / offer of prostitution. There is another woman in the illegal immigrant household: she is Mr Lin’s lover and she does not like manual work. She may also be the lover of the white English landlord, who comes by in a doof-doof car, with swinging gold chains to collect the rent (in cash of course). She giggles and pouts, in a cheong sam, on his lap at a party. You wonder who is exploiting whom in this interchange, and how neither of them will budge any stereotypes about the other.
There is also the very interesting depiction of the inhumanity behind factory processed meat: Ai Qin works in Sainsbury’s packing duck and maybe chicken too. Ai Qin is not involved at the killing stage, but even the treatment of the duck meat is disturbing. It is strange to use the term ‘inhumane’ because the animal is not, obviously, a human and yet it is inhumane treatment. The duck meat is no more than a commodity, and it is mass produced. I am not articulating myself very well here, about this. I have long been concerned about the mass production of meat, the way the end product is so divorced from its living reality. The mass production of food leads to inhumane conditions for the humans involved in the production, and for the animals, too. This is another blog post, however.
Not long after I saw this movie, I read an article in the newspaper about Vietnamese illegal immigrants who worked inside homes owned by Vietnamese gangs looking after crops of cannabis.
Two things leapt out at me when reading this article. The first was the awareness that the poor illegal immigrant (probably trafficked person) left to mind the crop would be the one who took any punishment meted out. The second was this paragraph:
The police have become so concerned about the criminal gang connection that they have warned landlords and letting agencies of the dangers of renting property to apparently innocent Vietnamese people.
In fairness to the article, the following paragraph warns about potential breach of anti-racism laws. But that’s a bit scare-mongering, isn’t it? Yes – there are Viet gangs in London (and probably elsewhere) producing drugs. But you know, some of those apparently innocent Vietnamese people are innocent Vietnamese people. And some of those apparently guilty Vietnamese people, like the people the subject of Ghosts are not as culpable in their own misfortune as they would appear.