Ascension, review: from sex dolls to duck carcasses – a hypnotic study of work in China

·4-min read
A factory worker inspects the head of a sex doll during assembly in Zhonghan City, Guangdong Province, China, in Ascension - MTV Documentary Films
A factory worker inspects the head of a sex doll during assembly in Zhonghan City, Guangdong Province, China, in Ascension - MTV Documentary Films

A graveyard for black-and-yellow rental bikes, seen from above in the remarkable Ascension, is like an Andreas Gursky photograph come to life – one of his godlike, hyperreal visions of consumerism. The shot floats back to show hundreds of nested frames in a cluster that looks almost organic, like something bees might do. The next image is of two stray dogs atop a mountain of discarded fake turf, one of them with ears pricked up as it clocks the drone overhead.

From these two particular shots, you wouldn’t necessarily know we were on mainland China, where the debuting Chinese-American documentarist Jessica Kingdon decided to focus her entire study. It’s an impressionistic essay, narrative-free and largely driven by her compositional choices, about the country’s work ethic, aspirational economy, and its symbols of conspicuous consumption. No one is interviewed, though we hear human voices quite often (with English subtitles) in the hubbub of Kingdon’s many sequences in factories, training centres and industrial plants.

Gloved hands sort through a debris of duck carcasses for snacking and ready meals. Machines fill and plug plastic water bottles in their thousands. Overheard are two workers on a shoe production line, talking about the common habit of buying the boss his lunch, to ensure getting paid for more hours’ work.

The film highlights such inequalities on the fly: Kingdon doesn’t speak Mandarin, and often wasn’t aware of the verbal content until her footage was being edited and translated. “No matter how he humiliates you, pretend to be obedient,” a room of service industry trainees are told about their putative future employer.

The access achieved here is something else, thanks to a team of field producers who scouted some 51 locations across China, including Genghis Security Academy in Beijing, where the recruits pummel each other raw and have their gun-toting exertions made to look like cool adverts on Instagram. Perhaps the most eye-popping sequences unfold in a factory for sex dolls, where the dispassionate, largely female staff are shown painting on areolas, smoothing cavities and giving giant silicone breasts a rubdown.

The lazy river at the Chimelong Waterpark in Guangzhou, China, as seen in Ascension - MTV Documentary Films
The lazy river at the Chimelong Waterpark in Guangzhou, China, as seen in Ascension - MTV Documentary Films

Ascension has a conscious structure, dictated somewhat by the title: it starts in the basement of industry, works its way up through middle-class striving (including flight attendant programmes and etiquette schools) and finishes in the playgrounds of extreme wealth, such as a luxury resort hotel built around a vast internal aquarium. At every level there’s an insistence on improving one’s personal brand and using it to be the greatest credit to a paternalistic nationwide economy. “Show eight teeth”, a room of all-female etiquette students are taught, along with how many steps back to prepare for a courtesy hug in business, rather than abruptly flinging your arms wide.

Kingdon, who studied on Brooklyn’s independent film scene, has acknowledged the type of film that influenced her: Godfrey Reggio’s seminal essay-poem Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s transfixing Our Daily Bread (2005), about mass food production, are two of her touchstones. In tune with those, it’s a formally hypnotic piece, with photography that often takes your breath away. Following in Philip Glass’s footsteps, the electronic composer Dan Deacon has supplied one of the most ingenious scores of the past several years, with each cue picking up on fragments of environmental noise – the squeak of wet silicone, say, or the strumming of automatic knitting machines – and using those as building blocks.

The patterning is so enthralling it can lull the viewer into a kind of daydream, but we snap out of this when some glimpse of exertion or fatigue reminds us what it means, in China, to have a livelihood. Electronic signs pitching “Sense of Worth”, “Work Hard” or “Chinese Dream” line the streets outside corporations, while many hands screw together all the little pieces of future landfill that go for the smallest sums on eBay. As a giant window on all this toil, the film is full of news, insights and revelations without pushing a dogmatic thesis: it’s as open-ended and humanly interested as documentaries get.

15 cert, 98 min. In cinemas from January 14

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