It’s possible that Jessica Kingdon’s terrific documentary Ascension (winner of Tribeca’s top doc prize at this year’s edition) won’t rewrite your intellectual understanding of President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream.” For all I know, you could be very aware of the conflicting shifts in the Chinese economy, China’s straddling of a communist/authoritarian past (and present) and its participation in global capitalism with resulting class stratification.
In lieu of a lecture, Kingdon’s film, which fits into a documentary tradition that includes Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, rather rewires your mental picture of contemporary China. Presented with no narrative and limited structure, Ascension is a collection of breathtaking images and revelatory vignettes that position China as a simultaneously alien and completely universal cultural and industrial landscape, never spelling out which direction points toward progress.
An often beautiful industrial symphony.
Kingdon’s wholly observational film — no voiceovers, talking heads or title cards steer you — was filmed across 51 locations around China and uses “class” as its structure, such as it is. Ascension is loosely divided into three parts, starting with the workers in Chinese factories, moving into a middle class positioned at the pivot of a burgeoning consumer culture — salespeople, influencers and attendants to the rich — and finally the wealthy with their embrace of Western excess.
There’s blurring between those class lines and that’s absolutely central to Kingdon’s thesis, though I found the three-tier framing to be the least successful part of Ascension. Even though the documentary doesn’t claim that any layer here is “representative,” it’s still hard not to wonder about the relative innocuousness of the treatment of blue-collar existence — instead of stereotypical sweatshops, these are all bright, sterilized spaces, exactly the type that would allow filmmakers access — and about how the filmmakers avoid any details at all on who gets to be rich in today’s China. The structure steers viewers, but Ascension hits its frequent peaks when it keeps the steering or the thematic obviousness — see also the Chinese plant pumping out “Keep America Great” merchandise — to a minimum.
Kingdon and fellow cinematographer Nathan Truesdell share a tremendous observational sense and Ascension succeeds when it drops the viewer into an unfamiliar setting and lets us situate at a deliberate pace. Sometimes that might just involve waiting for context clues before going, “Oh, they’re making blue jeans,” or spending a few seconds figuring out how the shiny plastic caps and piles of containers popping off an assembly line are part of a line bottling water, or processing the positioning of the camera above a graveyard of yellow rent-a-bikes, all beautiful and all commentaries on waste. Ascension could probably function without any actual on-camera people at all, meshing the factory imagery and later more affluent locations like an elaborate water park with Dan Deacon’s score, which often uses ambient manufacturing sounds as atonal components within the music.
Even if they’re never “characters,” the people in Ascension aren’t wordless or faceless. My favorite pieces of the documentary are slightly extended set pieces. There’s an opening scene at a job mart in which employment hopefuls listen to loud-speaker pitches for surprisingly varied low-level job options — Phone parts! Vape pens! — hearing restrictions like forbidden tattoos or a strict 38-and-under age limit and perks like air-conditioning or somewhat-less-crowded dormitories. It’s all backed by productivity propaganda and empowerment jargon and wages starting at under $2.50 per hour.
There’s a workshop in which aspiring salespeople and hospitality professionals learn “business reception etiquette,” including the proper number of teeth to show when you smile (eight) and the purpose behind Western hugging (“The principle of hugging is that you cooperate when someone hugs you”).
Best of all is the scene unfolding in a sex doll factory, in which the workers face tasks like iron-smoothing latex buttocks or rouging rubberized nipples with unnerving normalcy, never discussing the purpose for these quivering, dead-eyed avatars of pleasure. It’s a hilarious and bizarre sequence.
There are shades of Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble in those sex doll scenes and many parts of Ascension could have been filmed in any industrial hub in any country in the world. The recent Oscar-winning documentary American Factory, with its chronicle of a Chinese company taking over an abandoned GM facility in Ohio, is such a clear inversion of the premise that the two should be taught as complementary texts.
The primary questions Ascension is meant to be raising are those universal questions about the elevating potential of capitalism. Is “ascension” — the title is literal and refers to a poem written by the director’s great-grandfather — possible? Who controls the wealth and, with it, the power? How do they convey hope to the entry-level workers in a society in which automatons, robots, holograms and, yes, sex dolls are competing for the same service and hospitality opportunities and make fewer personal demands? How do you make one group of workers settle for the “satisfaction” of choosing between a job that lets you stand for 10 hours at a stretch or sit for the same duration when a select few at the top of the pyramid are going through the motions of American-style performative capitalism? Those questions are as relevant to an autoworker in Detroit as to the laborer lost in the animal steam of a food processing plant somewhere in China.
Like its documentary predecessors, Ascension finds aesthetic allure and fodder for debate in the complex symphony of industrialism and the people functioning within its order and disorder.