Neither didactic nor restrained, Ascension is a mesmerizing film that uncovers the face of a nation’s stoic realism.
Civilization’s pursuit of unfettered growth has often clashed with its purported foundations of equity, and the result is frequently expressed and interpreted through images of cutting absurdity, each juxtaposing the vanity of grand developmental movements within sobering frames of underdevelopment. This absurdity usually underscores satire, civilization’s sharpest bulwark against tyranny; lately, however, even satirists find themselves floundering between the increasingly blurry worlds of fable and reality. Modern China offers a prime example of this uneasy imbalance at work, its myriad contradictions having surfaced through recent decades of economic modernization and globalization to glare, unabashed, at the recalcitrant onlooker. Its 1.4 billion citizens are, relative to Western standards, culturally homogeneous and politically acquiescent; each of them, nonetheless, faces similar obstacles in the pursuit of success, measured in no different terms from their global counterparts but scaled against far greater heights. The gaokao, China’s college entrance exam, pits adolescents against one another in a do-or-die battle for the chance to live beyond gruelling mediocrity. For those who can’t do, teaching isn’t a safety net they can fall back on.
Ascension, Jessica Kingdon’s documentary of modern China, surveys this silent majority, left in the wake of a national dream to behold the signifiers of its unkept promises. Comprising factory operators, aspiring influencers, security personnel, laborers, hospitality workers, and so on, China’s urban working class are privy to their country’s unceasing transformations, witnessing in real time the latter’s affective and awesome malleability: as pragmatic producer, consumer, competitor for and against the West, and as idealistic defender of traditional beliefs and values. The symbiosis between capitalist practice and cultural patriotism finds its strongest articulation in the many trenchant portraits Kingdon distills out of her sociological project — female workers are shown handling ever-sophisticated sex dolls meant for export with wry disinterest; participants in a hospitality seminar are taught the number of teeth to display when smiling; and social media presence, most pervasively, embeds itself within their national consciousness, invoked as the lifeblood of corporate triumph and internalized as normal, apolitical distraction from the rude tedium of working-class life under authoritarian rule. The onlooker’s dispassionate gaze over Ascension’s more grotesque proceedings accords it an air of drollery reminiscent of Roy Andersson, and its cross-section diversity recalls the quietly sweeping strokes of Wang Xiaoshuai’s Chinese Portrait. But more than anything else, Ascension critiques the leviathan state of ruthlessly impersonal materialism imposed by reformist technocrats upon ordinary people, and succeeds where obstreperous satires have failed precisely because of its documentarian framework. Its Mandarin title relays a sorrowful spectacle of development undertaken without nourishment, blindly entreated as ideological mantra for the Chinese Dream; “a featherless phoenix” that proves “inferior to a chicken,” as succinctly put by one. The grating success behind this mantra owes itself, perhaps, to China’s “empire of signs,” a phrase first coined by Roland Barthes in his analysis of post-war Japan but strikingly relevant to the present-day codification of desires and hierarchies within its neighbor’s screen-saturated and polysemous realities. Neither didactic nor restrained, Kingdon’s mesmerizing film uncovers to considerable chagrin the face of a nation’s stoic realism, mounting noble remediation on a grossly inequitable system all but guaranteed its slow descent toward resignation.
You can currently stream Jessica Kingdon’s Ascension on Paramount+.