‘Ghosts’ are the nicknames given to the British by Chinese immigrant workers in Nick Broomfield’s devised drama, which sketches the background to the deaths of 23 Chinese cockle-pickers on the flats of Morecambe Bay in February 2004. He begins and ends with the event itself: eerie shots of foamy water trickling over dark sand; a cluster of men and women standing on the top of a sinking minibus – before rewinding to Fujian province in China where a young woman, Ai Qin (Ai Qin Lin) pays a trafficker to take her to London. Unlike Michael Winterbottom’s ‘In This World’, the journey is dealt with swiftly and mostly via a moving-line on a school-issue map. Instead it’s everyday life for illegal immigrants in Britain that Broomfield is concerned with and he sketches the details of their day-to-day existence, from their living arrangements (13 to a miserable semi in Norfolk) and working conditions (stuffing chickens into bags for supermarkets) to the sexual and economic hierachy imposed on Ai Qin and her companions by fellow Chinese immigrants turned modern-day slave-drivers.
As reportage and dramatisation that benefits hugely from Broomfield’s decision to cast close to his subject (Ai Qin was an illegal immigrant), it’s powerful stuff, even if, as in ‘The Road to Guantánamo’, it’s difficult not to shake the feeling that we’re watching a series of well-researched, careful and intelligent reconstructions of the sort which might later be edited and inserted into a documentary. But it’s to Broomfield’s credit that he resists this, deciding instead on a more daring, dramatic approach. It has its weak points as drama – some stilted acting, especially – but when the topic itself is so in need of exposure, much can be forgiven in favour of the film’s social and political importance. And important it certainly is.