ASCENSION – Review by Jennifer Merin

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ASCENSION, filmmaker Jessica Kingdon’s stunning observational documentary — her first feature — about life in contemporary China. The film is a revelation about day to day life for working citizens who are in pursuit of a lifestyle that might be considered modern and comfortably prosperous, one that sometimes conflicts or mixes uncomfortably with the lingering cultural customs, behaviors and expectations — especially those established by recent and ongoing authoritarian state regulations. Kingdon’s brilliant and sometimes shocking assemblage of images, presented without mindboggling voice over narration or overtly emotive musical embellishment, serves as a sort of guided meditation, one that gives the viewer time and space to reflect on what is currently being called the ‘Chinese dream,’ and how that realm of aspiration compares in opportunities. goals and accoutrements to the older and better established notion of the ‘American dream.’

Brooklyn, NY-based Kingdon is an outsider observer in China, but her insider access is extraordinary — and the coincidence of those two circumstances makes for a remarkably salient point of view. We meet a diverse population of aspirants, ranging from hospitality workers who are learning how to set tables Western style to factory workers who are putting the finishing touches on custom ordered life size sex dolls intended for Western consumption to food deliverers of the Uber stripe to techno honcho moguls who accumulate millions of yuan and spend them in pursuit of nonstop leisure time hoopla. And, then there are the internet influencers, a coterie who trade on gaining fame to make fortunes. With all the ‘dreaming,’ however, they are still constantly reminded of the restrictions they face in being expected to conform to requirement of loyalty to the state and its dictates.

The film is a panorama of the new China’s social, economic and political landscape, and it is absolutely fascinating.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).