Ascension, Jessica Kingdon’s documentary feature explores the rise of capitalism in the communistic political system of China. Accepted in the feature documentary category at Tribeca Film Festival (which it won) Kingdon’s film defies linear documentary structure. The documentary is a uniquely impressionistic portrait of Chinese culture and society. Thus, Kingdon turns filmmaking chronology on its head by using Chinese delineations of class structure to organize her film.
Highly visual, Ascension slices into cross sections of China’s lower, middle and upper classes. With minimal use of dialogue or voice-over narration, she presents a vision of the new China. Pointedly, the observer follows each segment of economic society clearly categorized and stuck in it place. Importantly, we note the individuals caught in the strata like one-celled creatures made part of a gigantic, layered, interdependent whole.
Initially, Kingdon begins with freelance workers looking for jobs at a street sight where agents hawk menial jobs for low pay. From there she moves through the various locations revealing what these jobs entail. Essentially, the factory work, like all factory work on an assembly line remains mindless and robotic. Nevertheless, the jobs promise a better lifestyle in the city. Importantly, these workers manifest China’s evolution from an agrarian economy. And as we follow, we see our recent past, our industrial revolution, manufacturing, automation. Ironically, with outsourcing, China’s factories of immense scale have long overtaken ours. Subsequently, Kindgon reminds us that we have been engulfed by the stratification of Chinese economic development.
Deftly, Kingdon explores how the Chinese pursue their version of the American Dream, Chinese style. Through gradual visual revelation Kingdon identifies the various factory locations. Then she manifests how their manufacturing produces product for middle class consumers. Often these are products the lower classes cannot easily afford. As a result each class depends on the other as they redefine the meaning of success for their class.
Nevertheless, the Chinese culture’s economic divide categorized by labor, consumerism and wealth mirrors the worst of our economic history. As menial cogs in the wheel of production, workers struggle through long hours. Meanwhile, the middle class mercantiles promote consumerism. Indeed, considered successful, they enjoy the fruits of the lower classes’ labor. Likewise, the wealthy upper classes revel in leisure time and find indulgent ways to waste it as an affordable luxury.
Of course as with its counterpart of the American Dream in the U.S., the “Chinese Dream” can only be attained by a few. Sought after by all who climb the economic ladder who would integrate into society, the dream is magical thinking. And like all fairy tales, it dissolves and diminishes each day of boring labor, routine and relative poverty.
Shot in 51 locations across China, Kingdon’s work strikes at the heart of the issues China and the U.S. face today. How does an evolving nation remain strong economically yet keep the divisions of wealth equitably stable? Ultimately, in the pursuit of the fairy tale, even the wealthy find meaninglessness and purposelessness inescapable facts. That a historically philosophical culture panders to materialism, hedonism and global domination remains ironic. Indeed, at the film’s conclusion Kingdon suggests that the meretricious values of the U.S. infected Chinese culture in the negative. And her documentary warns of the cultural and spiritual dissolution that comes with embracing such values.
Ascension’s sound design, cinematography and editing become the mainstay to elucidate Kingdon’s visual expressions. The film premieres in Tribeca’s Documentary Competition on 12 June. Check out the Tribeca FF link HERE.