‘Ascension’ Review: A Symphony of Productivity

Jessica Kingdon’s derivative but nevertheless hypnotizing documentary, “Ascension,” has its roots in the documentaries of Godfrey Reggio (“Koyaanisqatsi”) and Ron Fricke (“Samsara”), whose wordless, non-narrative montages plumbed the relationship between technology, nature and modernity with a near-mystical sensibility. “Ascension,” however, takes a slightly more focused approach by homing in on the contemporary Chinese economy.

The film’s takeaways are hardly revelatory for anyone aware of the fact that China is the world’s largest manufacturer and an enormous market with massive purchasing power. Instead, “Ascension” concerns itself with impressive and frequently alienating images showcasing Chinese productivity, innovation and consumption across class lines, revealing everyone from the day laborers to the middle-class hustlers to the privileged elites to be mere cogs in a ridiculously well-oiled machine.

Divided into three sections corresponding to these economic classes, the documentary begins with workers in Chinese factories churning out Keep America Great products on the assembly line, then fashioning sex dolls with surprising attention to detail. The relative decency of these blue-collar workplaces, which tout the availability of free, air-conditioned lodging and the option of sitting on the job, gestures at improving conditions on par with the nation’s rise, though the lack of context — the documentary is fully observational and devoid of narration or explanatory text — makes me wonder what kinds of places Kingdon had access to in the first place, and what was inevitably (or forcibly) left out of the frame.

It’s not hard to be sucked in by Kingdon and the cinematographer Nathan Truesdell’s handsome imagery, which calls attention to the beauty, absurdity, and horror of Chinese capitalism with symphonic panache. At the same time, this aestheticization of Chinese society doesn’t exactly sit well with this viewer: one wonders if this counts as a kind of tourism.

Ascension
Not rated. In Mandarin, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. In theaters.

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