MOVIE OF THE WEEK October 8, 2021: ASCENSION

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A study in contrasts, director Jessica Kingdon’s observational documentary Ascension (her first feature) is a fascinating look at contemporary China, a country driven by both consumption and service, tradition and innovation. Kingdon’s camera captures a wide swathe of modern Chinese society — from phalanxes of factory workers to nouveau riche executives. Her remarkable level of access supports a fly-on-the-wall filmmaking style that lends itself to a truly intimate cinematic experience.

Kingdon eschews voiceover narration and talking-head interviews, letting her footage speak for itself. Early scenes of workers being recruited to work in massive production plants (where everything from meals to accommodations is provided — but the company can dictate your appearance and behavior) segue into mesmerizing sequences of consumer goods being churned out. Some of it is beautiful, some of it is junk, and some of it is eyebrow-raising. But whether they’re pressing rivets into stacks of blue jeans or painting a sex doll’s areolas the perfect shade of dusty pink, the Chinese workers captured in Ascension approach their tasks with practicality and focus: The work has to be done, and someone has to do it.

The film conveys a sense of contemporary Chinese people knowing — and being satisfied with — their place in the country’s socioeconomic structure. There are opportunities to pursue ambition and “better yourself,” but trainees in bodyguard and butler programs are also clearly reminded that they’re considered lesser than the wealthy employers they’ll eventually serve. There’s no obvious sense of dissatisfaction at this divide; in fact, the only person who specifically voices a desire for more freedom is a rich woman dining in luxury. But is that because people aren’t experiencing those feelings or because they aren’t given the opportunity to speak about them?

So, it’s possible that interviews might have offered a bit more context to the portrait Kingdon has painted in Ascension. But that doesn’t detract from the compelling nature of her vision of the modern “Chinese dream.” Consumption is king, branding is everything, and contributing to the country in whatever way you can (while maybe getting to have a little fun) is the prime directive. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Pam Grady: Jessica Kingdon skips the commentary in her documentary feature debut, instead letting her images tell the story as she casts her gaze on China, caught in the grip between tradition and a rapidly changing world. Much of the focus is on work, from streetside recruiters seeking workers to man the factories (and live in dormitories) that manufacture much of the world’s consumer goods to a seminar on monetizing one’s own personal brand to business etiquette brought down to the granular level of how to smile and hug. And who knew that much work went into creating a latex sex doll? Globalization has created a tsunami of change throughout the world and that might go doubly for a country where tradition, hyper-capitalism, social media, and authoritarian politics so freely mix and mingle. It is a sea change Ascension grippingly portrays.

Sandie Angulo Chen: Ascension is filmmaker Jessica Kingdon’s fascinating and provocative observational documentary about life and work in modern-day China. The film captures moments from various jobs, factories, training seminars, and even social media influencers’ living rooms – all pursuing the Chinese Dream, and how that compares to other cultures’ dreams, particularly the legendary American Dream. One memorable sequence takes place in a factory that makes custom sex dolls (all of them White and therefore presumably headed to customers in the West). Another stand-out vignette takes place in a training seminar that teaches prospective butlers how to work for rich employers (the takeaway being that you can curse the boss behind his back but must always appear obedient to his face). Well-crafted and impressive.

Susan Wloszczyna: Early on, the documentary Ascension points its lens at a sign on that refers to the Chinese dream as opposed to an American one when it comes to capitalistic enterprises. Part Konyaaisqati, part Ron Popeil infomercial, Jessica Kingdon’s debut feature eschews any narration while allowing viewers to immerse themselves in an amusing, sometimes upsetting and often fascinating look at what this Asian powerhouse’s idea of commerce in the 21st century. Read full review.

Leslie Combemale 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. Read full review.

Jennifer Merin Jessica Kingdon’s brilliant and sometimes shocking assemblage of images, presented without mindboggling voice over narration, serves as a sort of guided meditation, one that gives the viewer time and space to reflect on what is being called the ‘Chinese dream,’ and how it compares to the ‘American dream.’ As an outsider observer, Kingdon’s insider access is remarkable. The film is fascinating. Read full review.

Loren King Ascension unfolds without narration or story but it speaks volumes. It’s a direct descendent of the observational documentaries of the great Frederick Wiseman. It also fits with the storied tradition of American documentaries about dead end jobs and failed economic promises, such as American Factory (2019); Barbara Kopple’s American Dream (1990 ); and Lee Grant’s Down and Out in America (1986). Read full review.

Liz Whittemore Filmmaker Jessica Kingdon must be one hell of a smooth operator to have gained access to some of China’s largest factory floors. From the assembly lines to military-style training practices, uniform and all, Ascension paints an eerie picture of what “The Chinese Dream” looks like. Read full review.

Cate Marquis Jessica Kingdon’s stunning documentary has no narrator to explain what you are seeing but may not really need one. It opens and closes with quotes from a 1912 poem, Ascension, from the filmmaker’s great-grandfather that serves as a sort of warning that what you might find when you, the warrior, finally reach the top of the rampart might be more devastation. Read full review.

FILM DETAILS:

Title: Ascension

Director: Jessica Kingdon

Release Date: October 8, 2021

Running Time: 97 minutes

Language: Chimese with English subtitles

Screenwriter: Jessica Kingdon (Documentary)

Distribution Company: MTV Films

Official Website

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna

Previous #MOTW Selections

Other Movies Opening This Week

Edited by Jennifer Merin

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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 About.com. 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 also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).