Ascension, a documentary about capitalism in modern China, is a nonstop rollercoaster ride of intrigue, illumination, and at times discomfort. I held on tight and rode it out. It was only ninety-seven minutes later after the hauntingly captivating music ended and the final credits rolled, that I was able to begin any attempt at processing the experience. In a word (ok, six words), Ascension left me mesmerized, emotionally drained, and vaguely unsettled. The movie made me feel and then think.
Per its tag line, Ascension explores “…the pursuit of wealth and the paradox of progress in modern China” and “examines what living the so-called ‘China Dream’ looks like today.” There is no script, but rather purposefully occasional, captured chit chat of people at work or in private conversation (with English subtitles). I had the benefit of viewing an online, post-screening webinar with director-producer Jessica Kingdon, co-producer Maggie Li, and moderator Rebecca Wyzan. Their discussion helped me collect myself, open my eyes to things I missed, and correct things I thought were so, but were not. There is a lot going on here.
In Jessica’s words, this observational film style “picks out and highlights pre-existing moments” as they happen. The intent is for “people to reflect on their own lives as they watch,” with a goal “to approach the topic with curiosity and openness.” Filmed over 3.5 years (with the last shot being completed in Changsha, China in December 2019 on the cusp of Covid), the movie shows everyday people living real lives in real time, doing what is necessary to survive, get ahead or both. It is raw and refined. It is an intimate portrait of a people and society in the throes of unprecedented change and action.
The producers stress that the movie is a portrait of capitalism in China, not of China. For this reason, such an immersive movie could in theory be made anywhere that capitalism is the dominant economic model. However, China’s meteoric development of the past four decades and no-holds-barred capitalism is an optimal and unique vehicle for exploring questions of labor, working conditions, progress, consequences, prospects, wealth, alienation, inequality, winners, and losers. It is amazing how much can be communicated not by telling, but only by showing.
What did I see in this version of capitalism? I saw (and felt) swirling complexities. I saw, on both sides of the ledger, calls for and demonstrations of:
Unity of purpose
Monetizing. monetizing, monetizing
Eating bitterness for a better life, or just to survive
Keeping true feelings to private settings
I was wrong in thinking that the subjects of the movie were unaware that they were being filmed. They seemed so natural and unencumbered. In fact, not only were they participating, but they also were mic’d up to capture the natural sounds of their days. From the background whirring, beeping, and grinding of factory equipment to the raucousness of a gigantic water park to the solitary quiet of a lone worker in a small corner of a plastic water bottle factory unscrewing her personal water bottle from home for a sip in an unsupervised break (Jessica’s favorite sound), the filmmakers captured all sorts of expected and unexpected sounds. Ascension is real in a visceral way.
The movie is honest. It shows the highs, the lows, and the gritty realities of capitalist societies generally and capitalism in modern China specifically. The emerging picture is usually not so straightforward. I watched the film with a Chinese national, an active entrepreneur in the new capitalist economy, and her eyes were opened similarly by experiencing the inner workings of bodyguard training schools, butler and personal assistant classes, live streaming production, crypto mining, and more, including factories recycling used plastic (with a sign prohibiting photographs), making fake Christmas trees, stitching padded blankets and clothes, and manufacturing sex dolls. Imagine if we looked as closely into those unseen and unthought-of places that are foundational in our own economies and societies.
The Chinese are embracing capitalism, some more successfully and fulfillingly than others. Initiative and drive are in abundance. Along with soaring opportunity and growth, often come long hours, boredom, and mindless repetition. I cannot shake the outcome of the well-attended, two-day motivational class on believing in oneself and one's potential. The young adults took turns standing at the front of the class and proudly and emphatically declaring their personal goals to make 10 million or more yuan per year and to earn 30-50-100 million yuan in three to five years.
Ascension is a movie about capitalism, about China, about us all.
--Andrew Singer, writer and speaker on China, a traveler, history lover, and collector of books and Chinese snuff bottles who lives on Cape Cod.