Jewish and Chinese American hapa Jessica Kingdon directed this mesmerizing documentary, “Ascension,” about people in pursuit of the Chinese dream. More objectively impressionistic than a measured thesis, the documentary looks at the labor market and the rise of capitalism within a communist country. We follow workers into factories and observe their repetitive assembly-line day before we go up the ladder to the middle class and eventually to the consumer-oriented billionaires.
At the bottom of the social hierarchy, the expectations are low. You can’t imagine US workers believing that a good work situation involves air-conditioned dormitories and free wifi for $3 an hour. And in an authoritarian country, the trickle down effect allows companies to require applicants be 38 or younger, have no tattoos and be shorter than 5-foot-7. You might consider the “no criminal record” clause as a good thing, but how hard is it to get a criminal record in China?
Kingdon, who was recognized by Filmmaker magazine as one of their 25 New Faces of Independent Film and as one of DOC NYC’s 40 Under 40, shows how stratified the society has become from the poor drudges locked into the morass of mundane, to the middle-class determined to learn the rules of business etiquette and possibly become a social media brand to the billionaires who want luxury and are ready to compete with the outside world for conspicuous consumption (as portrayed in documentaries such as “Red Obsession.”). It might be easy to be misled that these workers are mindlessly obedient, but other documentaries such as Hooligan Sparrow’s show otherwise.
Mesmerizing in its imagery, “Ascension” is an impressionistic portrait of China’s industrial supply chain that reveals the country’s growing class divide through staggering observations of labor, consumerism and wealth. The film is structured in three parts, ascending through the levels of the capitalist structure: workers survive mundane repetitive work day in factory production, the middle class become aspirational consumers, and the elites revel in a new level of hedonistic enjoyment. In traveling up the rungs of China’s social ladder through about 50 different locations, we see how each level supports and makes possible the next while recognizing the contemporary “Chinese Dream” remains an elusive fantasy for most. If the people at the bottom are cogs in the Chinese economic system, they are also cogs in the US industries that take advantage of lower labor costs in China.
The cinematography is beautiful even if this isn’t the kind of sightseeing tour one usually associates with China. This is a socio-political visual tour without narration or commentary, stunningly shot. And yet, what I remember most, the thing I wish to unsee is the life-sized sex dolls being made and colored, often per custom orders. The New York-based Kingdon also handled cinematography with Nathan Truesdell. All of us have a stake in this chain of consumerism when we buy cheap goods. Kingdon has peeled back the masks from the many faces who perform cheap labor to make jeans, water bottles, and phones. “Ascension” made its world premiere at Tribeca on 12 June 2021 and was awarded Best Documentary Feature. In Chinese with English subtitles.