Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Documentary-maker Nick Broomfield (Biggie And Tupac, Aileen: The Life And Death Of A Serial Killer) is as renowned for his appearances on camera – usually in a state of slight befuddlement as he tries to ‘find the story’ – as for his activities behind it.

It used to be critics who did the poacher-turned-gamekeeper thing – Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol. Now it’s the documentary makers - Kevin Macdonald, Paul McGuigan, Clive Gordon and Broomfield, trying to bring a ‘reality’ from their factual work into their fiction.

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Broomfield tried storytelling back in 1989 with Diamond Skulls, with little success – but that was a work of pure fiction. Here, he takes what is a reality for many illegal immigrants to the UK and scuffs up the edges to bring us a tale that feels almost unbearably real.

Inspired, if that is the right word, by the 2004 tragedy of 23 Chinese cockle pickers who lost their lives on a storm-tossed February night in Morecambe Bay, while trying to earn a crust on the grey market, Broomfield examines the circumstances which led to the deaths.

Illegal immigration is seen through the eyes of Ai Qin (Ai Qin Lin), a Chinese mum, who saddles herself with a $25,000 debt, so she can escape to the UK, where she believes she will earn the money to give her family, including her baby son, a better life.

Her six-month journey – in buses, crates, boats and on foot, through some of the most unforgiving terrain of the continental mass of Europe and Asia - is grim enough – and for what? A mattress in a room filled with other Chinese illegals, each paying £25 a week for the privilege, who head for the local employment agencies with fake documents and bribes in hand, so that they can secure work in some of the least salubrious professions in the UK – meat-packing, fruit and cockle picking.

The Ghosts of the title are both the Chinese term for the westerners they meet but surely the Chinese – and our indigenous low-paid - are like spectres themselves, flitting about on the edges of our consciousness, slightly scary, ethereal, haunted.

Broomfield uses documentary styling to help ‘keep things real’ and shies away from sensationalising events. Life is grim and unremitting but not without humanity. Often gang leaders in this sort of drama are presented as violent; here Mr Lin (Zhan Yu) is hardly any better off than his team, working alongside them, with few additional perks.

Dramatic devices are used – it’s unlikely Ai Qin would really do every single job in a factory within the one day, for example – but she represents the distillate of all illegals and is all the more powerful for it. Equally, it isn’t just the Chinese conditions that Broomfield and co-writer Jez Lewis are exploring here. There are plenty of the British underclass stuck in these dead-end jobs, too, and this film shows us it’s grim for them as well.

Finely balanced and well-argued, this is a work, which like its protagonist Ai Qin, has a quiet strength. Broomfield should be encouraged to stay on the working end of his camera more often.

The Morecambe Bay victims’ families are still trying to pay off their debts. For more information on the charity set up to help them, visit

Reviewed on: 11 Jan 2007
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The life of an illegal Chinese immigrant, based on a true story.
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Director: Nick Broomfield

Writer: Nick Broomfield, Jez Lewis

Starring: Ai Qin Lin, Zhan Yu, Zhe Wei, Man Qin Wei, Wen Buo Zhai, Devi Zhu

Year: 2006

Runtime: 96 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

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