Jessica Kingdon’s film Ascension divides opinion. In fact, the director describes her documentary as a ‘Rorschach test’. Some audiences see the film as a hopeful portrayal of the diverse range of avenues for upward mobility in modern China, while others aren’t so optimistic.
In short, the film explores capitalism in contemporary China. As Kingdon explains, it is a portrayal of the ‘Chinese dream’, a political slogan popularised by Xi Jinping and lacking tangible specificity. She suggests that China is a place that presents itself as offering many opportunities for social and economic progression. One’s interpretation of the Rorschach test hinges on whether one believes in the Chinese dream or sees only a nightmare.
The film is observational rather than polemical. There are no talking heads and there is no voice-over. Instead, it presents a panorama, glimpses of a vast range of worlds: seminars in branding and business etiquette; high-class restaurants where the moneyed elite dine; a training school for security guards; factories producing packets of processed duck, bottled water and sex dolls. It also shows leisure activities, including a water park and an internet cafe where gamers sit smoking and working away at a bottomless supply of Red Bull.
Ascension is a Rorschach test because of its observational, fly-on-the-wall approach. But this is not to say that the film is somehow neutral. In the editing room, the personal decisions of filmmakers compromise the neutrality of all documentaries, no matter how observational the style. In Ascension, the filmmakers are selective in what they show, and what they select is often the bleaker aspects of Chinese society. We see inequality, and the forced, dehumanising deference required of those at the lower rungs of the economic hierarchy. We see the monotony of factory production line work, contrasted with the indulgent, West-obsessed eating habits of the upper classes.
We never spend enough time with the film’s subjects to learn a name or to know them with anything but superficial depth. It is an impersonal film, but this works in its favour – it reflects the impersonal nature of its milieu, as well as a sense of China’s immense vastness.
Most of the subjects are in a dilemma, caught between the necessity to make money and the exploitative, alienating means by which they do so. This is not a symptom unique to China’s system of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. China’s implementation of some features of capitalism is relatively recent, starting in 1978, and because of the enormous impact it has had, the flaws of capitalism are more pronounced. While the film shows some aspects of the surveillance state (fingerprint technology, face-scanning cameras), the main focus is on aspects of capitalism not exclusive to China. It is like George Orwell’s 1984 – not because it describes some far away dystopia, but because it reflects elements of our own society. It makes us ask ourselves questions like: just how different is my environment? Just how free am I?
The film does not tell us what to think and will appeal to anyone who likes nuanced and intelligent documentaries. It explores its themes implicitly rather than asserting them explicitly. It is a film made up of details, at once illuminating, humorous, moving and frightening. The editing comments subtly by making connections and creating juxtapositions, highlighting ironies and absurdities. The effect is often blackly comic, such as when the head of a sex doll spins on its ludicrously voluptuous body Exorcist style, or when the attendants of a seminar on the ‘ways of business etiquette’, of whom all but one are female, are taught how many teeth to show when smiling, how high to raise an arm when waving, and how, exactly, one should execute the western custom of hugging (‘the principle of hugging is cooperation’).
Ascension offers insights and asks questions. Whether it is a panorama of an inspiring vista or a capitalist hellscape is a conclusion left to the viewer. Most Western audiences are likely to see the negatives. But in casting a light on capitalism in China while not limiting the focus to issues unique to that country, Kingdon also illuminates some of the uncomfortable realities of capitalism worldwide. By taking this approach, she forces those living in societies beyond China to ask themselves: just how different are we?
Director: Jessica Kingdon
Runtime: 97 minutes