This riveting non-narrative documentary travels to the factories, etiquette centers, fashion live streamer offices, security schools, and other contemporary curiosities of China. With a fixed gaze, it shows the allure of this mundane world that has helped the planet’s most populous country create the largest middle class of any nation. This isn’t a meditation on consumption alone, as the sights and sounds are accompanied by all the aspirational trappings that such an upwardly mobile population hungers for. The result is a fascinating commentary on the everyday, often punctuated with humor (such as a visit to a sex doll workshop). Director Jessica Kingdon allows the audience to parse each scene without coming across as a soulless record of the impact of industrialization.
The title, Ascension, suggests the arc of the story. At the beginning, migrant workers are being offered jobs at the infamous Foxconn factory for 220 yuan ($32) a day, while being told men can’t wear earrings, have colorblindness, be over 1.75 m tall (5’7”), or have tattoos (a recruiter later walks that back and suggests having as few tattoos as possible is desirable). The pristine factory interiors stand in stark contrast to the rusty and dirty factories that have come to dominate the US imagination around industrialization. The buzz and whistles of the factories work in unison with the film’s excellent score by Dan Deacon, as plastic bottle parts snapping together or steam bursts help build mood and anticipation.
In one scene, the film shows us peculiar billboards covered with feel-good slogans that sound troubling in English, such as “Be civilized. Set good examples.” or “Work hard and all wishes come true.” At a few other points, there is a blurring of military and corporate worlds when it’s unclear why a group of executives is greeted by a group of soldiers who eventually do a ceremonial march. We also see a machine embroidering “Keep America Great” patches, and a woman in a “Be a Daydreamer Is Not Bad” sweatshirt switching out small nail-file-like objects to be stamped with a machine. Altogether, there’s a slightly dystopian tone, even if the movie never slips too far down that rabbit hole. But there is one sad scene that verges on suffocating near the end. In what looks like a business etiquette workshop, people in suits talk about traveling to Xinjiang for business. One man takes on a more serious tone and calls himself a “patriot” before parroting Chinese media talking points about Xinjiang, where most Uyghurs live, as a violent place.
Ascension raises as many questions as it answers, capturing the aspirations of an ambitious new middle class in China, dominated by Han Chinese culture, and we watch it unfold with limited dialogue. By the end, there’s a sense of arrival at a comfortable place, where skyscrapers mimic the scale of giant Buddha shrines and seaside cities evoke the leisure the new middle class seeks solace in. The suggestion is that commercialism is the new religion for a country still climbing the ladder of success, and the film certainly helps you see why this is seductive for so many.
Ascension can be streamed via the Tribeca Film Festival through June 23.
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