Most people in most places at most times in human history have led miserable, rotten lives, largely due to the blameworthy actions of other people.
One way that those of us who’ve enjoyed somewhat less horrible lives are able to avoid depression and remain sane is by not focusing too much on that majority of people and their plight. Ghosts makes that just a little harder to do.
The film is about a group of people—third world (China) illegal immigrants to a first world (England) country—that have particularly miserable lives. It is based—the tragic ending at least—on an actual case.
So it covers some of the same ground as It’s a Free World, which I wrote about recently, however with several differences. The latter film focuses primarily on the “middleman” types who make what money they can matching illegal employers to illegal workers, whereas Ghosts is very much about the immigrant workers themselves. Also It’s a Free World is closer to a conventional movie in terms of production values, style, presence of a very attractive female lead, etc. Ghosts feels like a lower budget affair, and at times almost verges on being a documentary (especially in the very last scene, which made me think maybe the main character had been played by herself all along; reading about the film later, I don’t think that’s literally the case).
Also, Ghosts—again this is something I read later—uses mostly non-professional actors, specifically former illegal immigrants who experienced for real the kinds of things depicted in the movie. This lends the movie further authenticity, though it also means the acting is a bit stilted at times compared to a slicker production.
Another thing I noticed that I’ll throw in here is that the subtitles are incomplete. It’s not uncommon for filmmakers to not bother subtitling the “obvious” things, like a person’s name or “yes” or “no,” so as not to clutter the screen more than necessary. But usually that constitutes maybe 5%-10% of what is said, and the rest is subtitled, whereas it felt like in this film more like 25% is left untranslated. I don’t know why that is, or whether it’s good or bad, but it seemed like a fair amount of the time when multiple people are speaking at once, or when it’s apparently chattering small talk, they didn’t bother to subtitle it.
The immigrants in the film represent millions and millions of people around the world living in a state that may not be literally slavery, but is very close—maybe more akin to serfdom, indentured servitude, or life in a Steinbeck-era “company town” where you can never realistically get out of debt to your employer.
The film is so relentlessly grim and negative that I was more depressed than anything watching it. Even the slight “happy ending”—showing that a minority of such immigrants actually escape their plight and manage to return home—is hollow. After all, they’re returning to a life they were desperate to leave—for very good reason—in the beginning, only now hopelessly burdened with debts to the various parasites who enabled their nightmarish journey.
The independent film Under the Same Moon similarly exposed the harrowing, exploited, brutal existence of many illegal immigrants, but in the context of an uplifting, touching story of a loving human relationship, making it more watchable, more entertaining to me. Now, you can certainly make the case that it was schmaltzy and too Hollywood, and that by comparison Ghosts is the more fiercely honest and hence superior film, and I don’t know that I could disagree with that, but there’s no question I felt shitty after seeing this.
I even had the thought watching it—just to show where my mind went with this material—that the best thing about having children is that it keeps you connected to the world and gives you a reason to go on, while the worst thing about having children is that it keeps you connected to the world and gives you a reason to go on.
Because really I don’t see that the lives these characters have are clearly better than being dead; those who die in the film may well be the lucky ones. But invariably they trudge on because they want to be able to send money home for their children, or to pay off the loan sharks who otherwise threaten to kill their families. Even though most times the children’s lives will be just as ugly and pointless in the continuing cycle.
So is it admirable that they sacrifice for their families, or is it sad that they’re trapped by their obligations and can’t just “leave”? “When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose” says Bob Dylan (or “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” if you prefer Kris Kristofferson), but is that a warning about non-attachment or an endorsement of it?
A lot of this is just me and where I am in life, or maybe even the mood I was in the particular day I watched the film. I feel like I’ve spent much of my life having my “consciousness raised” about stuff like this, to the point where I might now be suffering a certain “compassion fatigue” and just want to turn away from it.
Obviously the (much healthier) alternative to hiding from this kind of injustice and suffering is actually devoting oneself to doing something to change it, and I plead guilty there. I’ve not answered the call of this raised consciousness to any more than a negligible degree in my life. I’m not justifying that, just reporting it. And I don’t think burying myself deeper into the ugliness of life—such as is depicted in this film—is suddenly going to inspire me to do more than I would have done without having seen it.
But again, maybe it just caught me on a bad day. I already regard it as a good film; there may be times I would also find watching it a much more positive experience.
Maybe I shouldn’t say the negativity is literally relentless. There is a certain small amount of bonding and friendship that occurs among the illegal workers themselves. Or what affected me a little more is when one of their employers—a local farm woman—actually treats them humanely. I don’t know that their wages are any better there than on their other jobs, but she speaks to them like human beings, serves them tea in her home, and seems to care that their working conditions aren’t too awful. So the film does provide a reminder that even when you can’t change the world in some grand way, you can at least provide a small oasis of decency through how you treat people.
Ghosts is emotionally effective in presenting the lives of people who would normally be invisible, and that’s important and valuable. I wouldn’t want to steer anyone away from the film just because I experienced it as depressing.
Speaking of being invisible, I assumed early on that the title Ghosts referred to the illegal workers themselves. That is, they are around, but you’re only vaguely aware they are. No matter that they live their lives in such close proximity, most people just don’t directly interact with them.
But then it appeared in the film itself that the Chinese use the term for the middlemen employment agency-types, which didn’t make as much sense to me. (What is ghost-like about them?) But eventually I realized the Chinese use the term more broadly than that, and that it’s probably a general term for Caucasians (based on their complexion, like a ghost’s white sheet).
I would venture to guess though that even if that’s what it means, it was chosen for the title of the film precisely because of the initial thought I had of the ghostlike semi-living/semi-dead existence of the immigrants. So probably the title intentionally carries with it a double meaning.