PARK CITY -- Veteran documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield makes an impressive leap to features with "Ghosts," a story of illegal Chinese immigrants in the U.K. Based on actual events and using nonprofessional actors, the film has the immediacy of a well-made documentary and the character arc of a good narrative film.

While immigrant issues are very much in the news, specifics unique to Britain and the gritty reality of the story might limit its theatrical potential in the U.S. But it should play very nicely on cable outlets.

About 3 million illegal immigrants make up the bedrock of the English labor force. Not surprisingly, it's a horrible life. Broomfield, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jez Lewis, displays a keen sense of story and has chosen a charismatic novice, Ai Quin Lin, to play a variation of herself and serve as a way into this hidden world.

The film opens with a gripping sequence in which a group of immigrants are digging for cockles at low tide and become stranded on top of their van as water and a storm rush in. From here, Broomfield cuts back a year to see where this all started.

Ai Quin is a single mother living with her family in the Fujian Province, but she can't make enough money working in the rice fields to support her infant son. So she borrows $25,000 to pay the "Snakehead" gangs to smuggle her into England. Forced into near slavery as part of a crew of immigrants run by Mr. Lin (Zhan Yu), Ai Quin is brought to live in a two-bedroom flat with 11 others, sleeping on a dirty mattress on the floor. Using forged work papers, she gets a series of menial jobs for meager pay. Watching her gutting ducks in a meat-packing plant is enough to make anyone swear off poultry.

Gradually she falls into a routine, and we get to know her and her fellow immigrants. All of them are in the same boat, even Mr. Lin and his haughty Chinese girlfriend. Mr. Lin proves to be a more complex character than the money-grubbing bully he first appears. He has done a little better than the others and now exploits them, but he is there for the same reasons. When he can no longer bribe the ghosts (all white people are referred to as ghosts) at the employment office, the group sets out for what they hope is a more profitable job -- digging for cockles in Morecambe Bay. But the local workers resent the Chinese, and in a beautifully staged and shot scene, a bunch of ghosts attack them in the sand and steal their haul.

And this is where we came in. Suffice it to say, it doesn't end well for many of them. In fact, this incident is based on a real-life tragedy in which 23 Chinese immigrants drowned in the bay while digging for cockles.

Combining his instinct for documentary with a sharp eye for framing, aided by cinematographer Mark Wolf, Broomfield has made a very handsome-looking first feature. He has kept things appropriately sparse, filming with a documentary-size crew of only five. The score by Molly Nyman and Harry Escott, together with a large selection of Chinese songs, adds to the feeling of authenticity.

A Channel 4 presentation of a Lafayette Films production
Director: Nick Broomfield
Screenwriter: Nick Broomfield, Jez Lewis
Producer: Nick Broomfield, Jez Lewis
Executive producer: Charles Finch
Director of photography: Mark Wolf
Production designer: David Bryan
Music: Molly Nyman, Harry Escott
Editor: Peter Christelis
Ai Quin: Ai Quin Lin
Mr. Lin: Zhan Yu
Xiao Li: Zhe Wei
Robert: Shaun Gallagher
Running time -- 96 minutes
No MPAA rating