‘Ascension’ Review: Oscar-Nominated Doc Will Change the Way You Look at China

No matter what your image of modern China, it’s nowhere near complete until you’ve seen it through New York-based, China-observing director Jessica Kingdon’s eyes. Working in the mold of photographers Lauren Greenfield (“Queen of Versailles”) and Edward Burtynsky (“Manufactured Landscapes”), the Tribeca Film Festival winner trains her camera on the impacts of China’s fast-exploding economy in the Oscar-nominated “Ascension,” leaving audiences with striking and frequently absurd scenes burned into their imaginations. Without contextualizing what we’re seeing, the hi-def collage asks us to make sense of a society even more stratified and excessive than our own.

Kingdon’s curiosity spans the class divide, from assembly lines where women prepare silicone sex dolls for demanding clients to private dining rooms where nouveau-riche elites learn how to eat a banana with fork and knife. The title, taken from a poem written by her great-grandfather Zheng Ze, refers not to the rise of China (as one might presume) so much as the many obstacles blocking upward movement in a time of rapid change.

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Over a mesmerizing 95 minutes — condensed from visits to more than 50 locations around the country — the director works her way up the social ladder, while never losing sight of the laborers toiling at the bottom of this putatively communist society’s booming hyper-capitalist economy. The surreal first shot finds cleaning women balancing along the edge of a posh hotel’s rooftop pool, while a galling late scene watches an oblivious influencer complaining of possible heat stroke while ignoring the gardener working just a few yards away.

“Ascension” contains no talking heads, no spoken commentary or relevant data. It’s a feature-length film essay on contemporary China — a cinematic coffee-table book, filtered through the director’s wry and by-no-means-apolitical American perspective. Kingdon approaches the subject as an outsider, with whatever biases that may entail; given her half-Chinese heritage, she understands this culture better than most. Meanwhile, audiences must draw their own conclusions from each scene. What may seem ironic to one viewer (like an embroidery machine stitching “Keep America Great” scarves) could resonate quite differently for someone else. We learn from what we see, but it’s also a litmus test of sorts, evoking pride in some and prejudice in others.

Early on, she shows outdoor billboards touting the “Chinese Dream,” President Xi Jinping’s abstract term for the people’s collective and individual improvement. “Work hard, and all wishes come true,” reads another banner — whereas a giant digital screen scolds jaywalkers at an intersection, publicly shaming those who take shortcuts. The carrot and the stick. But who among the laborers recruited to earn $2.99 an hour for “easy work” are actually living the dream?

Kingdon enters a number of these factories, where her footage recalls midcentury American films about industrial efficiency and progress — except, the workers depicted look bored out of their minds. (The film is an extension of Kingdon’s 2017 short “Commodity City,” a 10-minute montage of the endless stalls in Yiwu’s five-mile indoor mall, where blasé salespeople sit before walls of disposable goods.) Then come the more enterprising types, like livestreamer “Jade Face,” who offers makeup tips on the Taobao shopping platform, or the striver in the Star Boss program who says, “After the two-day training, I decided to work to death.”

The midsection of the film focuses on those enrolled in various seminars and coaching sessions to improve their standing. Women learn business etiquette, including when to hug and how to smile (pleasantly expose the upper eight teeth), while men study to become butlers or bodyguards. These scenes, which feel more intimate than the film’s impersonal opening act, repeat a strategy from Harun Farocki’s 1990 feature “How to Live in the German Federal Republic,” compiled entirely from instructional videos, in that such training exercises inevitably seem humorous when taken out of context (heck, they’re awkward to participate in as well).

Finally, in the film’s last half-hour, Kingdon enters the realm of wealth and leisure, revealing how those with disposable income spend their free time — in video arcades and amusement parks, or educating themselves on fine European cuisine. Kingdon (who shares cinematography credit with Nathan Truesdell) has a great eye, framing scenes from unexpected but striking angles. Whether it’s dozens of innertubes seen from above or a graveyard for bright yellow Ofo cycles (a bike-sharing company that folded in 2017), occasional artful shots elevate the more traditional character-focused material. Still, hardly any of Kingdon’s footage could be considered conventional, rendered all the more unusual by composer Dan Deacon’s electronic score, which swarms and thrums somewhat ominously in the background.

Viewed a certain way, it would be fair to call “Ascension” an epic film with a cast of hundreds (though we only learn the names of a couple people). It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of her project, and it’s Kingdon’s work as editor that makes “Ascension” such a remarkable achievement. She organizes all these disparate scenes into a logical upward progression, and even though we seldom know where we are or who exactly we’re observing, these foreign situations are relatable, engaging and often unforgettable. As a word of advice: If possible, find a way to immerse yourself in the movie, which has even shown a few times on Imax screens. As a window into a nation’s soul, there’s no better way to watch. It‘s the ideal way to see one of the year’s top docs.

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