ASCENSION – Review by Leslie Combemale

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The observational structure of Chinese-American documentarian Jessica Kingdon’s Ascension, about the “Chinese Dream”, is truly immersive, and dredges up lots of questions we don’t think about nearly enough. There’s no narration. For the first half hour, factory workers are shown doing menial tasks against the ambient 20th century classical score, only intermittently punctuated with those onscreen discussing pay, or the quality of their work. A scene later shows one woman in a high-priced sex doll factory yelling to another, “is the head ready for #153?” and a manager informing a girl using a scalding hot iron to sculpt the rubbery pubic bone on a female figure with oversized breasts, “The Client called and asked to narrow the skeleton frame.” It’s bracing seeing hundreds of young women stooped over sexualized silicone female bodies, spreading their legs or shoving their heads forward to fix an imperfection. Why are nearly all the workers there women? When men buy one of those for thousands of dollars, do they consider who made it? For that matter, when we pick up what will be the 68th t-shirt in our wardrobe, do we think about how it’s made and by whom?

Through it all, the state is all-important. Brainwashing or ‘company cultural training’, is part of the corporate structure. That extends to a ‘senior etiquette training certification’ in which aspiring female professionals learn how to wave, bow, and smile in a way that reflects well on China. There are classes on how to ‘monetize your brand’, much like there might be in the US, but in this case, the alternative is working to death in a factory for $2 an hour.

Another interesting element is how Kingdon builds (or ascends, if you will) from the lower to higher class, even though, of course, there’s not supposed to be such a disparity in China. Towards the end of the film, we see a session where executives are taught how to attend a luxurious European dinner, including ringing the bell for servants. Together, they discuss what place knowledge has in society. The first says, “There’s tons of information in this digital age.” The second, “People want to explore the truth.” The last says, “Rather than people figuring out themselves, the government should just tell them. A wise governor knows the line.” Another scene shows someone at an orchid-festooned podium saying, “Economic growth results in wealth distribution. Wealth only goes to whoever deserves it.” Right. Tell that to the women buffing out the inner thighs of sex dolls for 12 hours straight.

The entire film has such a hypnotic quality that the information about consumption, and the questions about human value, negative and hyper-gendered norms, and the perpetuation of sub-human working conditions come and go. When the film is over, all those questions weigh heavily, as they should.

4 out of 5 stars

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren for websites including LikeABossGirls.com, where she promotes women in film with her own column. She is in her third year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Find all her interviews and reviews at cinemasiren.com.