Documentary film “Ascension”, which received an Oscar nomination in last week, is often mesmerizing in its restrained but effective presentation of the social/economic landscapes of the Chinese society. Because it simply looks at a number of various places and people during its 97-minute running time without any background explanation, the documentary requires some patience from us at first, but we gradually come to see its big picture step by step as it observes the pursuit of the Chinese Dream from bottom to top, and that big picture is alternatively haunting and disturbing to say the least.
After the short excerpt from a 1912 poem written by director Jessica Kingdon’s great-grandfather, the documentary looks at numerous people looking for a job on some urban street. They are all ready to accept any job for earning money, and there are already several company recruiters prepared to draw these job searchers’ attention. Although there are some restrictions, many of them are soon hired, and we soon see them being taken to those factories where they will be hired to work.
The next part shows us a series of manufacturing processes and workers behind these processes. At one point, we observe how plastic bottles and caps are manufactured step by step, and then we see several factory workers examining whether there is any visible defect in the plastic bottles. In case of what may be one of the most amusing scenes in the documentary, we watch a group of female workers doing their respective tasks on many sex dolls, and it is rather fascinating to watch how they put some extra details on these sex dolls.
When the documentary subsequently observes the relationship between workers and their employers, there are some funny moments to observe. During one scene, we see applicants going through a sort of military training, and their instructors often emphasize to them how important their loyalty is to their company. As watching these applicants instructed to keep the small guidebook written by their company CEO, I could not help but think of Red Guard soldiers holding Mao Zeodong’s book, and I found myself sardonically wondering what Mao would think of this rather absurd moment, which is certainly quite opposite to everything he believed.
The rapid changes in the social/economic landscapes of the Chinese society during last 30 years are more apparent when the documentary goes up a bit to show us the middle echelons of the Chinese society. We see a group of young people eagerly listening to an instructor who explains a lot about how they should sell themselves as brands for the ongoing era of digital social media, and we later observe how several social media influencers work in front of their smartphone cameras. Most of them do not look particularly affluent, but they all hope for any chance for big online success, and we surely get some small laughs as observing their efforts.
Another amusing part in the documentary comes from a training session for young people willing to become bodyguards. Under their stern instructor, they go through a series of elementary training sessions, and you may chuckle when they are trying to pass a test demanding a certain driving skill – or when a couple of goats, which seem to belong to their instructor, happen to steal the show a bit later.
When the documentary goes higher along the ladder of economic success and wealth, the mood becomes quite different compared to the early scenes of the documentary. We see a group of young people ready to learn how to work for their rich employers as servants or butlers, and it is certainly odd and funny to watch a certain brief scene if you have ever watched British TV drama series “Downton Abbey”. The documentary, whose production incidentally took place in 51 different locations throughout China, also shows some nice and luxurious places including a big waterpark and a huge aquarium, and we are reminded more of the considerable economic gap in the Chinese society when several businesspeople are enjoying their expensive dinner at some fancy restaurant.
And these and several other scenes in the last part of the documentary surely exemplify how much the Chinese society has rapidly advanced, and you will be amazed from time to time, but the documentary does not overlook the downsides of these swift social/economic changes and developments. The more they manufacture, the more they consume and waste, and that is clearly reflected by the last several shots of the documentary. Sure, the country will grow more and more during next several years at least, but there will be the price to face in one way or another, and I am afraid that will be a big problem for not only the Chinese people but also all of us around the world.
While it mostly sticks to its clinically objective attitude, “Ascension” is a rewarding experience on the whole, and Kingdon, who also edited the documentary in addition to serving as its co-producer and co-cinematographer, demonstrates here that she is another interesting documentary filmmaker to watch. Although she only made a number of short documentary films before making a feature debut here, the overall result shows considerable talent and confidence, and it will be interesting to see what may come next from her.