Nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the upcoming 94th Academy Awards, Jessica Kingdon’s eye-opening documentary, Ascension, gives a rare insight into China’s driven and resolute society. From the lower class factory workers producing sex-dolls for clients, to students attending a Western-style finishing school, it’s a fascinating but equally unsettling watch.
If Ascension’s opening credits are anything to go by, viewers may well assume that the proceeding hour and a half will capture something along the lines of individuals chasing the “Chinese Dream”. Indeed, Director Jessica Kingdon opts to begin this insightful documentary with an excerpt from the poem Ascension, written in 1912 by her great grandfather, Zheng Ze:
“Hand on my sword, I ascend the tower. I gaze afar, hoping to relieve my worries. The tower is too high to climb; Instead, my troubles only grow.”
One’s assumption, then, would be correct. Kingdon’s principal focus in this straight to the point documentary is the Chinese people themselves. Filming in over 50 locations, she captures a variety of individuals going about their lives. She compiles these moments and ultimately provides a snapshot to Western audiences of China in the 21st century as a global superpower whose citizens produce and consume at astonishing rates. In an interview with the Telegraph, she voiced her hope for the documentary that “at the end of the day people take away the moments of humanity, and intimacy and poetry that come through in sometimes dehumanising systems.”
Kingdon works her way through the layers of those pursuing the “Chinese Dream”. Beginning with lower class factory workers, viewers are a fly on the wall to a bustling job advertisement zone. Located on the side of a street, presumably somewhere on the outskirts of a city, megaphones boom out job offers and their requirements: “This is a standing job, no sitting. It’s for the new Huawei phone,” blasts one voice. Seconds later, the screen cuts to a shot of workers filling onto the Huawei bus, taking new recruits to the factory. Other voices shout “20 yuan ($2.99) per hour” or “Sign up with us for packaging vape pens!”. The variety of jobs is seemingly endless, but it must be to keep up with global demand.
A few scenes later, we are propelled to a different location. Kingdon captures an alarming scene: tables of lifeless sex-dolls and endless shelves of soon-to-be attached plastic heads. Dressed in yellow t-shirts, the female workers meticulously work on their patients. It is an absurd yet comical image. One has no choice but to ponder who on earth these clients are, ordering sex-dolls and requesting that the workers “narrow the skeleton frame”, as is the case in one instance. But that’s not the point. Kingdon is not interested in what the workers are doing (although I must admit, this was fascinating), but more so how they do it. Interestingly, Kingdon is not entirely fluent in Chinese, so it was only after filming that she was able to understand what had been captured.
grating, monotonous staccato strings crop up throughout, usually at times when what is being shown on the screen is unnerving
There is an overwhelming sense of momentum throughout this documentary; such driving force to ‘produce and achieve’ is heightened by composer Dan Deacon’s intensely compelling soundtrack which fills the silences and makes up for the lack of any sort of narration. At times, one cannot be sure if the noises are coming from the factory’s steaming machines or if, instead, they are Deacon’s intelligent compositions. The grating, monotonous staccato strings crop up throughout, usually at times when what is being shown on the screen is unnerving. These uncomfortable sounds, however, are wholly appropriate – after all, it’s quite alarming watching two girls (who look about 14), welding a plastic body with no heat protection gear. One of them then proceeds to ask why “400 degrees isn’t enough?”.
Jumping to the middle class, and the scene couldn’t be any different. A finishing school is preparing students for studying and working abroad. “You must practice the formal Western way”, says the teacher, as she corrects their knife and fork whilst eating, having, moments earlier, asked if anyone had watched Downton Abbey. She goes on to explain that when working for the rich, there is no room for showing emotion: “no matter how he humiliates you…you have to pretend to be obedient”. Such social behaviour ties in with posters decorating China’s landscapes in cities and towns. The translations sit next to several of these, reading “Work hard and all wishes come true” and “Sense of Worth. Chinese Dream”.
The closing scenes suggest the documentary is reaching its climax: the ultra-rich are having a European-style dinner party in a private and exclusive room. Ringing their “traditional European bells” to call for service, one of the men explains that the rim of the water glass is so big because “many Europeans have big noses”. They proceed to eat cheese, 48-month-old cured ham, French desserts and discuss a recent business trip to Xinjiang. Kingdon captures a scene that many can only dream of.
Several questions, however, remain unanswered. Perhaps Kingdon will return to make a sequel with an alternative focus, that is, the significance of China’s rural-urban divide in the struggle for the “Chinese Dream”. This, however, might politicize her work, moving closer to a focus on what the Chinese are doing, and further away from how they are doing it. The success in Kingdon’s documentary lies in her not knowing what she was about to record; she was simply capturing the Chinese rhythm of things. Nevertheless, this rural-urban divide is arguably one of the most pressing social and economic issues in China today and one which, when significantly improved, will enable the country to flourish in all areas, in never-before-seen ways. And there’s a feeling in the air that this is only a few years round the corner.
It’s unlikely though, that we will be seeing an Ascension sequel for a long time. Reflecting on her time filming, Kingdon recalls how “some people were worried about things I never would have anticipated. One person, who was running the plastic bottle factory, was worried that we were going to hit him up with a bill afterwards.” She also recalls on one occasion how her team were thought to be “corporate spies trying to steal their tax secrets.”
If you are looking to get a deeper understanding of what it is to be Chinese in the 21st century, you’d be foolish not to watch it
A documentary like this doesn’t come around often. If you are looking to get a deeper understanding of what it is to be Chinese in the 21st century, you’d be foolish not to watch it. Kingdon hones in on China’s contrasting classes, leaving viewers with the feeling as though a few more pieces have been added to the jigsaw of understanding China. But how many pieces are there in this jigsaw? Only time will tell.
Returning to Zheng Ze, then, and one might initially have the stance that the tower towards the “Chinese Dream” is far too tall. But, what Kingdon masterfully captures here is the nationwide mindset that it’s not too tall for people to begin their ascent.
Featured image courtesy of Alex Watkin. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes were made to this image.
In-article images courtesy of @ascensiondocumentary via @instagram.com. No changes were made to this image.
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