Film review: Ascension 

There’s no “voice-over or obvious narrative” to Jessica Kingdon’s “brilliant” documentary about modern China, said Cath Clarke in The Guardian. Shot in more than 50 locations, the film consists of a series of vignettes, some of them quite surreal, that “slyly” capture the country’s transition from the “world’s factory to a massive consumer society”. In one scene, female factory workers put the finishing touches to high-end sex dolls: deep in concentration, they “meticulously hand-paint pink nipples” and trim bikini lines. Elsewhere, we see the “dizzying production line of capitalist excess” in full flow, as it churns out plastic Christmas trees and Make America Great Again merchandise (“oh, the irony”). Ascension may focus on China, but it has things “to say about income inequality and aspiration everywhere: how we’re all sold a dream that’s out of the reach of most”. 

Ascension is a “layer cake portrait” of a country “where everyone is both buyer and seller, relentlessly”, said Danny Leigh in the FT. And while it could have become like one of those old TV shows that invited British viewers to “giggle at foreigners”, it never patronises: Kingdon has said her film isn’t about China as such – it’s about capitalism. “To slip into salesmanship, the film is a must.” I’m afraid I found it “derivative”, and its “takeaways” unilluminating, said Beatrice Loayza in The New York Times: don’t we all know that China is both the “world’s largest manufacturer and an enormous market”? It’s hard not to be sucked in by the film’s handsome cinematography, but its “aestheticisation of Chinese society” made me wonder if it isn’t “just a kind of tourism”.


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