“ Genre: Drama / Theatrical Release: 2006 / Suitable for 15 years and over / Director: Nick Broomfield / Actors: Ai Qin Lin, Man Qin Wei, Zhe Wei, Zhan Yu, Yong Aing Zhai ... / DVD released 2007-04-09 at Palisades Tartan / Features of the DVD: Anamorphic, PAL „
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On 5 February 2004, 23 Chinese immigrants drowned in Morecambe Bay when they failed to escape the incoming tide. Having been smuggled to England with the promise of a better life, they died pointlessly and in misery, with their families still forced to pay off their debts. This documentary-style film by Nick Broomfield documents the tragedy - although it concentrates on a much smaller number of immigrants, primarily Ai Qin. Ai Qin is portrayed as having left her home in Fujian Province because she was unable to support her son. Having spent a massive sum of money to be smuggled from China to the UK in a journey that lasted for 6 months, she finds that she is forced to work to pay back the massive debts she has unknowingly accumulated.
Initially working in a meat factory and sharing a house with a number of other immigrants, she finds that she is barely earning enough to pay her rent. Ringmaster Mr Lin tries to persuade her to move into massage and prostitution, but she refuses, and is eventually forced to take a job in Morecambe, picking cockles. Yet there are still problems. The local cockle pickers don't like the Chinese taking over their work and threaten and harrass them to the extent that they are forced to do their job when it is not really safe to do so. Will Ai Qin be one of the many Chinese who drown? Or will she manage to escape with her life and eventually return to China to see her son?
I've perhaps given away more plot than I usually would; however, I think there are few British people who won't remember the horrific story that unfolded from Morecambe Bay that February day back in 2004. In any case, the film begins on the beach with the tide coming in and we know that something dreadful is about to happen. It then skips back to show Ai Qin's role in the whole thing and how she came to be in such a position. I will certainly never forget that day. Having worked at the British Embassy in China, I had the job of liaising between the Chinese and British police in cases like this and saw first-hand the devastation that debts incurred by the snakehead gangs responsible for the smuggling wrecked on the families left back home. Unfortunately, the people smuggling continued and, despite the tragedy of Morecambe Bay, is still going on.
I was expecting a documentary, and so was surprised to find that this was a re-enactment. However, I think this was a wise decision on the part of Nick Broomfield, because it really allows the viewer to get under the skin of Ai Qin. Played by an actress called Ai Qin Lin, who herself was smuggled from China to England, she is portrayed as a mother whose husband has left her and just wants to make a better life for her son. Believing that there are plenty of ways of making money in the UK, she saves the money and goes on the long journey to the UK. The actress is great. She is very natural; watching her come to terms with her situation while missing her son desperately is deeply moving. I really felt as though I was watching a documentary.
Mr Lin is played by Zhan Yu, who apparently runs restaurants in London for a living, so this performance was a one-off. Mr Lin is a man who just wants to make money and from that point of view, he has no feelings for the people that he is in charge of. It is in his interest to help find them work, so that they can pay rent, but when they still struggle to pay because of ridiculously low wages, he threatens them. Totally reliant on him, they have no alternative but to go along with what he says. Zhan Yu is a heavy, thick-set man which helps with his portrayal, but his acting is also good - he comes across as being a really nasty piece of work. For someone who isn't an actor by career, I think it was an excellent job. Most of the other actors are ex-illegal immigrants, allowing them to bring a dose of reality to the film.
This is not an enjoyable film to watch - I don't think that anyone could expect it to be. It is harrowing at times, although there wasn't as much violence as I thought there might be. Watching Ai Qin smuggled into secret compartments in lorries and ships was disturbing, and there is a fight on the beach involving Mr Lin and numerous thugs. And of course, the ending is very upsetting and probably a little too realistic for many - I know I sobbed my way through much of it. However, the most harrowing thing of all is watching Ai Qin's desperation as she realises she may never see her son again. There is a rating of 15 on the film and I think that it is about right. For educational purposes, I see no harm in showing it to high school students, but they should know something about it before watching.
One of the points that Nick Broomfield is trying to make with this film is that despite the deaths of the people in Morecambe Bay, their families were still left with massive debts that they had to repay to the snakehead gangs, with absolutely no help from the British Government, apart from the justice meted out to those caught in the UK. This is a particularly difficult subject - in many ways, the British people had nothing to do with these illegal immigrants who are smuggled by gangs that are themselves Chinese, and I think many people struggle to understand why the Fujianese in particular are so desperate to leave their own country. Whatever your view though, it is hard not to feel deeply sad for the family members back in China who are still having to pay off these debts while mourning their dead relatives. Nick Broomfield has set up a fund to help these families - see http://www.ghosts.uk.com/ for more details.
Much of the film is in Chinese and so is subtitled. I speak Mandarin Chinese, but struggled with some of the language, because the immigrants are mainly from Fujian Province, where they speak a dialect, or Mandarin with a strong accent. Thankfully, the subtitles are good, and parts of the film are in English anyway. For anyone wondering, the 'Ghosts' of the title refers to the fact that the Chinese call Caucasians 'ghosts' because of the paleness of the skin. However, it also highlights the fact that to the majority of the British public, the Chinese immigrants were ghosts, because they kept themselves to themselves because of their illegal status.
There is a very good 'making of' documentary in the extras section. This is over an hour long and shows the research that Nick Broomfield and Jez Lewis carried out, along with that of Guardian journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai, who went undercover during her research. Families back in China who have lost their relatives are filmed, as is the search for relevant actors and actresses, some of whom are interviewed about their own experiences. This is actually more what I was expecting from the main feature, so to have both gives a really thorough view of what happened and although I already knew much of it, it was still very insightful. The only other extra is a trailer.
This is one of those films that people ought to watch, but don't really want to. Although it is acted, it is so realistic that it really is uncomfortable to watch. I still think it is an important piece of film-making though, highlighting a group of people who are largely invisible. If you are slightly curious, then I would definitely recommend watching both the feature and the 'making of' extra. Just bear in mind that you could find it deeply upsetting. Recommended.
The DVD is available from play.com for £5.49.
Running time: 96 minutes