‘Ascension’ Review: Documentary who found rich stories in the distribution of China’s economy

Everything we use every day is the work of someone else. Cell phones and computers, water bottles and plastic cutlery, soap dispensers and blankets. All elements of the great chain of global capitalism.

The documentary Ascension explores curiosity, openness and criticism.

Director Jessica Kingdon uses her camera in China. Looking behind the curtain of globalism and revealing the universality of workers’ struggles. The result is a captivating documentary. Which was named best at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. And which draws in compelling ways to every corner of China’s increasingly stratified economy class. With its simple direction and skilful editing, Kingdon’s collection of sketches reminds us. That the destructive cycle of consumption and waste continues.

The places and people have shown usually remain anonymous. No scientists or bureaucrats are explaining how the Chinese economy works. The lack of specific identification does not make the overall impact of the documentary any less direct. In contrast, Ascension’s atmosphere is more impressionistic, insightful and human. In its commitment to understanding the difference between job demands and individual responses to them.

Ascension up the economic hierarchy, starting with a kind of job fair. Where posters advertise the Chinese dream (“Work hard and all wishes come true”). And company representatives mention details of their jobs (“Easiest job you can find: Sit down and sir!”). Most notable, and the first part of Kingdon’s strict world, are the many restrictions employers place on their employees”. No hair dye!” shouted the employee, whose age limit is 38. “Get a tattoo if possible,” said another to the curious candidate who recognized the small tattoo on his back. And ironically, a man hired for a cell phone factory insisted. “You can’t bring your personal cell phone to this job.”

The absurdity of this statement is a valuable puzzle to keep in mind:

When one looks at the Rise and the limits and conditions we must accept and comply with for economic survival. Each scene questions our blind spots. About what we buy, the brands we trust, and the products we use to define ourselves. Once we realize how many heavy, strained, burnt fingers are in the rubble we buried our lives in, are we going to buy all this crap?

Workers perform many specialized tasks to market binoculars, fake Christmas trees, and shorts. They attach glasses to binoculars, collect piles of artificial green spruce branches and stamp metal accents on jeans belts. The rhythm they perform is enchanting, while the arguments workers make with middle-class managers trying to fool them are furious (and relative).

A scene in a sex doll factory is marked by the contrast between the resulting figures and the professionalism shown by the workers as they rotate according to the client’s wishes in terms of nipple colour, areola width and hair length. The focus here is on how capitalism demands order, efficiency and loyalty, at the risk of dehumanization, and Kingdon captures how these challenging demands are met in increasingly unreasonable ways.

Ascension then stepped forward, spending time in branding and etiquette classes. His portrait was just as accurate as bodyguard and butler schools to capture the ambitious aspirations of the Chinese middle class. “After two days of training, I decided Death was working”. Proudly named one of the students in branding seminars as a long-term goal.

“You have to pretend to be obedient,” said one of the attentive business school teachers. 

By the time Ascension ends with a European-style dinner hosted by the very rich and residents of the last two parts of the documentary theoretically working to please, Kingdon points to a gaping gap between the workers who make Fight know and the rich who they don’t.

“Wealth only goes to those who deserve it,” said one rich housewife and was a bitter pill to swallow at the end of this current, irritating and worldwide ascent.