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Review: Ascension Is a Cutting Look at the New China’s Wheels of Production

Jessica Kingdon’s maintenance of her critical and often ironizing perspective keeps Ascension from tipping into polemic.

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Ascension
Photo: MTV Documentary Films

It would not take much to turn Jessica Kingdon’s Ascension into a straight-up horror film about a nation grinding itself into a dazed workaholic oblivion. As it stands, the documentary’s evocation of smog-covered Chinese cities seemingly composed of nothing but factories and apartment blocks is already ominous. All Kingdon would need to push her film into dystopic nightmare is a slight amplification of the soundtrack, a few more jarring edits, maybe some cutaways to the environmental devastation being wreaked by the workshops we see powering the back end of 21st-century capitalism’s steroidal fantasies of eternal growth. Kingdon’s maintenance of her critical and often ironizing perspective keeps Ascension from tipping into polemic, despite having ample material to justify doing so.

An impressionistic and narration-free film, Ascension presents a kind of survey of how the burgeoning industrial might of modern China intersects with the potentially clashing demands of ultra-nationalism and rampant consumerism. Shot in dozens of locations around the country, Kingdon’s documentary casts a wide net in its settings, from factories to water parks to conference rooms. And underneath everything is a sense of headlong forward momentum as the country powers ahead into a new and unfamiliar phase.

The majority of Ascension is taken up with fly-on-the-wall footage of people at work. Often they’re assembling vast quantities of disposable material, including plastic water bottles and jeans, just a couple steps removed from the landfill. Many of the scenes have a mesmeric quality, helped along by Dan Deacon’s quietly vibrating score. Some, too, suggest that Kingdon could have taken refuge in easy symbolism, a la Godfrey Reggio’s The Qatsi Trilogy, as in the shots of Chinese workers producing Keep America Great patches and creepy sex dolls. But by letting the scenes run a little longer than necessary, Kingdon gives time for any implied or accidental visual joke or shock to wear off, letting viewers focus on the quotidian realities of the mind-numbing factory work that keeps the supply chain humming.

Almost everyone seen in Kingdon’s documentary looks slightly dazed and confused, but that’s probably to be expected. The image of the mindless worker bee is complicated here by the early scenes in which labor brokers shout their pitches (“Sign up with us for packaging vape pens!”) at passing throngs of people. The messages are specific enough to make it seem that the factories now need to compete for people with attractive offers, such as the promise of being able to sit at work, but still making it abundantly clear that labor is an endlessly available commodity and nothing more. At one point, a man shouts through a megaphone that people shouldn’t bother applying for work if they’re over 38 years old.

In some of its even eerier moments, Ascension moves off the factory floor and into other aspects of the roiling Chinese economy where entrepreneurial hustling meets state-led regimentation in a way that suggests a coldly dehumanized future. Attendees at a sales training class are belligerently informed that “knowledge must be monetized.” A speaker at an oddly jingoistic cosmetics company conference declares that “China’s native brands must live on!” Workers in an office park wear quasi-military fatigues as they’re put through rigorous drills. Even the acquisition of wealth remains burdened by anxiety, given the scenes of armed bodyguards being trained and a school teaching people how to be British-style butlers for the new monied classes looking to protect and flaunt their riches.

Kingdon’s view of where China is headed is echoed in lines from the 1912 titular poem that her great grandfather wrote and which she uses to bracket the film. “I ascend and gaze afar with a clear heart only to find that everywhere is already razed,” reads the line that caps the film. A handful of scenes near the conclusion ostensibly show people at rest, luxuriating in a city-sized water park so sparkling new, well-adorned, and chintzily glamorous in conception that it seems transported from some oil-rich Gulf principality. But these moments are where Kingdon’s view of a future of pointless productivity becomes most pointed, as she cuts from idly drifting swimmers to a cargo ship heading out to sea past yet another set of generic office towers. Even though Ascension is set in a many thousand-year-old culture, it feels as though it’s documenting a new society being born right in front of the camera lens.

Director: Jessica Kingdon Distributor: MTV Documentary Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2021

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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