Jessica Kingdon’s Ascension is surprisingly meditative while it examines the rungs on the ladder that citizens of China must climb in order to achieve the “Chinese Dream”. A potion of consumerism, labor, and wealth, Kingdon examines the lives of those working in the factories, manufacturing the items that will go on to be shipped and sold worldwide.
What Kingdon shows us is not that unfamiliar, at least for me as a Chinese American who still has roots in China. I view the film as a sort of litmus test, for some, it might seem that those grinding away at a job that pays the equivalent of around $2 an hour will seem inhumane, for others, it might just be a fact of life. There are many pundits who have commented on the meteoric rise of China as a manufacturing and economic giant in the past thirty years, but Kingdon’s Ascension asks you to come to conclusions on your own.
It’s not just those earning $2 an hour, working at a factory that lists a dorm, uniform, air conditioning, and a chair as a perk, who are merely cogs in the machine of the Chinese Dream. It’s those working to become the service staff of the ultra-wealthy class of China, who are taught to endure their employer’s insults and humiliations, likening their working class to Downton Abbey. It’s the security guards being trained rigorously as if preparing for boot camp, being beaten by their fellow initiates to harden their resolve.
At points, Ascension meanders, it wanders in and peeks at the various levels of those who are trying to ascend but at the core of it is the obsession with money. Something that keeps it centered and makes it slightly dystopic. From those taking social media classes about branding themselves with aspirations that are purely driven by income, to those ultra-rich discussing the details of their expensive Western dinner, money is the oil that this dream runs on.
In the journey to rise to the top, we see who those at the top have to step on, unconsciously or consciously, to be able to sit in a privileged position. The lack of narration or subject interviews sometimes works to the detriment of the doc. Composer Dan Deacon’s music is a stirring addition but it can’t do all of the work. If there is a clear message Kingdon is trying to make about this path to the Chinese Dream, it comes out more like a whisper than a shout.
Some moments, when her intention might become more focused, lie in a manufacturing plant where underpaid workers assemble eerily life-like sex dolls, deciding on colors for areola and hairstyles, or when we glimpse a group of wealthy elites discussing why the shape of flared liqueur glass was created for Europeans with “large noses”, or when, at the end, we spot an influencer taking photos in a tropical location with a professional photographer only to zoom back for us to see a landscaper squatting to manicure a perfect lawn. In these moments, Kingdon’s voice becomes clearer but it is often lost in the slow monotony of machinery, and that can be a shame.
For those unfamiliar with the beast that is the Chinese socioeconomic structure, Ascension is sure to be a surprising look and perhaps a wake-up call. Those familiar might wish for a more pointed message at the end of it all.
This film review is based on a screening from the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Photo Courtesy of Visual Communications.