One person assembles plastic bottle pumps, another paints areola on sex dolls, and a different individual takes a business etiquette class to learn the proper way to smile (one shows eight teeth…the top ones). All of them are Chinese citizens struggling to find and maintain a foothold in their country’s race towards global domination, and in “Ascension,” they give audiences a peek at what increasingly appears to be a devil’s bargain. This is a nation that has mobilized millions to pull off a social and economic miracle, sure, even if it is at the expense of a vast, shared cultural soul.
Director Jessica Kingdon keeps herself at a distant remove in the documentary, which opens at something of a job fair where recruiters for any number of industries entice potential employees with promises of seated work, air-conditioned dorms, and roughly $3 a day in wages. The people stepping onto the factory busses pass signs that read, “work hard and all wishes come true,” yet their labor doesn’t look like a pathway towards anything except modest survival.
In this, the first of three sections, “Ascension,” focuses on the legions manning unskilled labor positions within a vast manufacturing sector. There’s little time for talk or socialization in these jobs, except maybe to gripe a little about one’s boss, and the overall feeling is one of segmentation and loneliness. All humor, creativity, and joy appear to be boiled out of these people, leaving nothing but a blank, bleached husk of a person focused solely on their repetitive tasks.
Yet this isn’t exclusively the product of the work or the environments, as the documentary examines what might be considered middle- and upper-class portions of society that are similarly hollow and vacuous. The second act of “Ascension” showcases middle management types going through a sort of corporate boot camp where they are indoctrinated to sacrifice for the company and spends time elsewhere with etiquette coaches and brand gurus that teach everything from a sense of personal value to the proper way to hug. By the time Kingdon moves to the upper tier of society in part three, where professional gamers literally live in their task chairs in front of headphone-connected monitors, the larger picture comes into focus.
This is less of culture and more of a labor camp masquerading as a nation-state. Whether it is the billboards that encourage productivity, or the life coaches that tell their students, “wealth only goes to whoever deserves it,” everyone seems to be mobilized around a broader goal to maximize the production and consuming power of the country, which gaslights its citizens into thinking their hard work is a path towards “dreams.” What these dreams are exactly never really come into focus for any section of society. Though what is clear is that if a person doesn’t achieve them, the individual, not the state, is at fault.
Stylistically, “Ascension” borrows from the city-symphony genre at times, with long stretches passing without any dialogue as the camera whips past and through recycling depots, cell phone assembly lines, and poultry plants. There are no talking heads in the picture or any camera-facing reflections to guide the audience along a narrative, making it less cinéma vérité and more direct cinema in style. It is an effective approach, for as the doc moves into its third portion, the collage of experiences begins to come into focus as a reflection of China’s sprint towards economic superiority on the backs of an exhausted workforce that’s been conditioned into compliance at all levels.
Presenting the story of China’s 21st-century industrialization push via these segmented labor strata paints a clear picture, though it is a bleak one. So much national energy is being focused on economic development that one wonders if this generation’s poets, musicians, and philosophers will ever emerge (or be able to). And while this limited scope of the documentary focuses the thematic components with effective precision, it sometimes deprives the greater effort of any broader context about China as a society.
How are some people stuck with the plastic bottle factory job while others can move into personal security or butler school? Is it economic inequality, political influence, provincial bias, familial connections, or some combination of all that doom some to perpetual assembly line work while others enjoy water parks? It’s hard to say, but all seem to know their place and appear more than happy to fulfill that role’s predetermined destiny.
Nothing in “Ascension” is stated outright or offered to the audience with an encouraging nudge, though, so perhaps a lack of context is appropriate. A strings-heavy score is the only influence in this regard, cresting at certain moments and colliding in discord during others. Like Kingdon, it seems to know better than to get in the way of the subjects, whose ghostly, blank movements through China’s economic revolution speak more succinctly than any text card or talking head ever could. [A-]