In just a few days the Winter Olympic Games begin in Beijing, a massive event China will use to present an idealized image of itself to the world.
For a truer picture of China, in all its complexities and contradictions, ignore the Olympic pageantry and check out the documentary Ascension. The Oscar-shortlisted film, directed by Jessica Kingdon, creates a nuanced portrait of contemporary China, with emphasis on its increasingly stratified class system.
Ascension begins with aspiring workers pouring into cities in search of opportunity.
“A lot of it is migrant laborers,” Kingdon notes, “people from the countryside coming in.”
There are plenty of jobs, for those who don’t mind menial labor at less than munificent wages. Loudspeakers tout the advantages of signing up for one employer over another.
“Now recruiting, jobs at a foreign company,” one announcement says. “Factories and dorms with air conditioning. Standard uniform is required. Seated work available.”
If that doesn’t sound appealing, there are other options: “Hiring now, free ride to the factory!” “Dorm and food provided, no health test required.”
But would-be applicants often face restrictions: “No hair dye. No ear studs for men… People with color vision deficiency, or over 1.75 meters height (5’9”), don’t come.”
China’s vast supply of labor and low wage scale has made it the manufacturer to the world. It has also created a class of super-rich. Sandwiched in between is a growing middle class of professionals. The middle and upper classes are gobbling up goods at quite a clip.
“China has the largest consumer market in the world, competing neck and neck with the U.S., and it’s happened in the past 35 years, very quickly,” Kingdon tells Deadline. “So, I’m looking at what does progress mean? What does progress look like? Yes, millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, but at the same time, there’s increased income inequality and different forms of repression and alienation. So, [Ascension] is bringing up what a good life looks like. I think we’re all struggling to ask what that means under capitalism.”
In scenes that may remind some of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, the documentary captures factory workers trying to keep pace with a continuous flow of products streaming along assembly lines. Other laborers are occupied with piece work — assembling spray nozzles or binoculars, cutting fabric, scooping viscous ink onto giant silk screens for printing patterns onto blankets.
“With the film I was really trying to hold two truths at once,” Kingdon explains. “When we’re looking at the factories, in some ways it can feel bleak and a little bit depressing, but at the same time, for a lot of people it’s improved their quality of life. Maybe to an outsider who isn’t used to looking at factories, it can seem repetitive and depressing, but I think that for a lot of people it’s also a way of freedom and forward motion. So, I think it’s really just finding a container to hold these two opposing truths at the same time.”
The middle of the film focuses on middle class strivers. A social media entrepreneur who goes under the name “Jade Face” hocks beauty products to her followers. In another scene, a group of attentive students attend a “Ways of Business Etiquette” course, learning the appropriate angle at which to nod their heads, when to initiate a hug when greeting someone (five-to-seven feet away from the intended target). And there’s this useful tip: “At work, how many teeth shall we show when smiling?” Answer: “Eight. To be clear, it is the upper eight.”
In another sequence, butlers train to serve China’s 1-percent. One valet recalls the task of squeezing toothpaste for his wealthy employer. Ascension also provides an indelible look at the leisure activities of the monied class — for instance, lollygagging at the Chimelong Waterpark. It evokes class disparities reminiscent of the South Korean Oscar winner Parasite.
Despite how it may sound, Kingdon’s film is not meant to indict China.
“I’m hoping for Western audiences to watch it and instead of looking at it and saying, ‘Oh, China’s so strange and so different,’ to think about how it could reflect back on their own lives,” she comments. “I just wanted people to see we’re all part of this same system, we’re not separate from it.”
Ascension, from MTV Documentary Films, is streaming on the Paramount+ platform. It won Best Documentary Feature at Tribeca, and Kingdon was awarded the festival’s Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award. She is also nominated for a Director’s Guild Award, and Ascension is up for the Producers Guild of America Award as well. The National Board of Review named it one of the top five documentaries of the year.
One of Kingdon’s remarkable achievements was gaining access to film in so many places across China, a country noted for extreme sensitivity to how it is portrayed, and for tightly controlling information.
“It was surprisingly easier than we expected,” Kingdon tells Deadline. “We were filming insights of production and consumerism related to capitalism in China, and these are not spaces that are necessarily things that people are trying to hide from the public view… We were transparent about what we were doing. We would tell people we’re making a documentary about China’s economic rise and that we wanted to document it in this way… Each location really had a different story about how we got access, but there was no special trick.”
Her partner on the project, Nathan Truesdell, who shot and produced the film with Kingdon, says Kingdon downplays the effort that went into securing permissions to film.
“It was very complicated,” Truesdell says. “She’s just relentless and good at actually uncovering all these places. We had an amazing team of fixers in China, but she pushed them very hard to find the places that she wanted to shoot in… It wasn’t easy. She acts like it was easy, but it wasn’t.”
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