NEW TO THEATERS! What does it mean to live in China today? Who are these people that our mass media have told us are everything from communists to racists to oppressed slaves of their government? What are their dreams, desires, wants, and fears? Ascension, helmed by Chinese-American director Jessica Kingdon, attempts to answer these questions by giving Chinese people from all walks of life the chance to speak for themselves. Shot in an observational style, the audience is a fly on the wall, idly watching people go about their lives, presenting a view of Chinese life, one that is curated only through edits. The power of this style is that it lets Chinese people control their narrative, and I was surprised by how candid they were.
Kingdon shows that the most direct and widespread concern for the majority of Chinese citizens is growing income inequality and the commodification of culture and people. Many folks openly discuss the intense stratification of socioeconomic classes and the desire of those in the working class to break out of it by following the “Chinese Dream.” What dream is that? It is much like the “American Dream” in that there is no set definition, but everyone knows what it means. It’s prosperity, financial security for oneself and family, a white-collar job, and maybe even happiness. This desire for the “Chinese Dream” is so great that one man jokingly said, after graduating from an entrepreneur training course, that he would work to death to ensure the success of his business.
I was also surprised by how the subjects of Ascension bring up and discuss Xi Jinping, the country’s president. It feels as if they fear being critical of him and the government. One factory worker interestingly said they liked him only for the fact that he spent much of his presidency fighting corruption in the government and the private sector. This all may sound eerily familiar to many Americans.
“…the most direct and widespread concern for the majority of Chinese citizens is growing income inequality…”
In humanizing Chinese people and bringing light to the most pressing issues facing Chinese society, Kingdon has also drawn a connection between the American experience and the Chinese one. While there are certainly many differences between the two economies, the most notable being the prominence of factory jobs in China versus the retail and office work in America, rising income inequality and the commodification of culture and people have grown to become problems many Americans are aware of and seeking solutions to as well.
The engaging kaleidoscopic focus and observational style are reminiscent of the experimental documentary There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing. That film follows a crew as they ask people from all walks of life whether Beijing has a strong wind. In the subtext of the answers to such a simple yet broad question are the attitudes, concerns, and perspectives of the varied citizenry of the massive city. While casting a much larger net, Ascension captures this same subtext.
However, the ending, which focuses on recreation at a water park, did not do enough to connect itself to the larger narrative of entrepreneurship, alienation, and income inequality that the film had set up. It was nonetheless an aesthetically pleasing finale.
Ascension seeks to rewrite the narrative of the Chinese experience, which, as far as mainstream media is concerned, has been written by foreigners. It aims to do this by giving the everyday people a much-needed platform to speak for themselves. In doing so, it empowers Chinese citizens while also shining a light on the exploitation and oppression they face in the workplace and job market.
"…engaging kaleidoscopic focus and observational style..."