Ascension Review: Synthetic Dreams

A striking visual essay about the high price of global capitalism

8 mins read

(USA, 97 min.)
Dir. Jessica Kingdon


“I ascend and gaze afar with a clear heart / only to find that everywhere is already razed.”

The words of Zheng Ze’s 1912 poem “Ascension” bookend this film by his great-granddaughter, Jessica Kingdon. Ascension is an extraordinary visual essay about the fallacy of the Chinese Dream. Kingdon observes as young members of this once collectivist society strive for social mobility and prosperity through hard work. While viewing workers rally for jobs as recruiters advertise the perks of their working conditions—“standing job!” or “sitting job!”—for manual labour that nets about two bucks an hour, Kingdon creates an intricate portrait of the cogs and wheels of capitalism in full force. Ascension captures the human cost of capitalism on a global scale. The heights of which Kingdon’s great-grandfather prophesized remain illusions. All one sees is the waste and the scars left by the futile climb.

The ascent is really a scramble over a ladder with endless rungs. The workers Kingdon observes merely lend their hands towards the betterment of others. Cheap goods help rejuvenate the nation, but there are few glimpses of individual happiness or prosperity. Visually arresting long takes observe as parts of cheap goods—binoculars, water bottles—whir through the assembly line. The human workers are mostly present for quality control. They half-watch movies and TV on their smartphones while adjusting labels or pulling faulty goods from conveyor belts. Humans are merely an afterthought in this machinery. This is boring and monotonous work, yet Kingdon captures the indefatigable rhythm of the capitalist machine in motion.


A Grand Experiment

Ascension boasts imposing cinematography by Kingdon and Nathan Truesdell (Deprogrammed) that perceives the grandeur of this human experiment. Shots harness the monotony of the job as belts move, thingamajigs whirl, and people yawn. Canted angles accentuate the scope of stuff, like rows and rows of yarn stacked in vertigo-inspiring columns. The sheer volume of plastic junk within the frame is staggering. If the dream of any society rests on the production, distribution, and accumulation of so much disposable crap, then its values need realignment. Kingdon perceives this fallacy as she watches a generation of Chinese labourers exhausting themselves to no end.

The workers, like the products, are disposable. Signs and audio messages stress that workers under 38 years old are preferred. Timesheets leave labourers at the whims of managers who interpret a worker’s effort subjectively. Workers outbid one another to buy their supervisor lunch with hopes of inspiring better hours and evaluations. While the scale of the machinery is staggering, Ascension ultimately witnesses another machine: one that cycles through humans to create an artificial world.


De-Humanized Dreams

After an opening act that glides through an industrial ballet with barely a word punctuating the mechanical whirs, humans gradually assume prominence in Ascension. They’re still making goods, but Kingdon zooms in closer to view human hands in action. For example, an extended sequence takes audiences into a workshop in which women assemble sex dolls. They fashion wigs, test joints, trim hairy orifices, and hand-paint areolas. They melt silicone with scorching melting rods, perfecting should, boobs, and bums with 400°C hot flashes.

As hands scurry to and for bending and sculpting this buxom sex dolls into shape, the women snap photos for clients. They tailor products to feed men’s desires. There is something perverse, yet fascinating, about this action that Ascension captures. Women toil to make synthetic women to lay in their stead. The gendered nature of the work, and the inherent misogyny of the trade, is striking. Moreover, the toll and cost of these sex dolls underscores the emptiness of the dream the humans pursue. The male customers, drained at the end of a long workday, have no time (or, perhaps, no interest) in forging connections with women. They simply want unresponsive receptacles that enable release.

Another vignette observes police in training. The cadets undergo intense physical tests. They learn how to receive a blow. Others learn how to give one. Instructors make example of candidates who fall short of perfection. In other scenes, influencers, hospitality workers, and salespeople perfect their personal brands to sell relationship and experiences. These workers, too, are products of an assembly line.


Class and Influence

Ascension finds pervasive human costs when Kingdon steps outside the manufacturing scene. The film evokes the improbability of social mobility for many of the labourers Kingdon observes. For example, the doc gives audiences a seat at the table during a hospitality class. The students listen as their instructor tells them to take silently whatever abuse an employer throws at them. The instructor lectures that bosses are under lots of stress and a servant must therefore understand his or her place. High-end dinners teach aspiring domestic workers the value of servitude. As students learn the nuances of premium goods and listen to how the popularity of Downton Abbey inspires a generation of Chinese audiences to embrace the class system, one sees pervasive propaganda at play. Social strata are an internalised process in this synthetic dream.

The film witnesses subtle, even unconscious acts of rebellion, though. One worker, for example, pauses to sip water from a Nalgene as disposable bottles pass her station. Similarly, Kingdon and Truesdell observe the wastefulness of human activity as smog pumps into the air, run-off flows from factories into rivers, and humans go swim in it. The pursuit of material wealth as the ultimate end-goal ensures a dire fate for the planet.

The images in Ascension are striking and provocative feats. Kingdon makes an extraordinarily perceptive feature directorial debut with her thoughtful canvasses. Ascension has the scope and grandeur of Anthropocene and Manufactured Landscapes as it witnesses the scale of human activity and the cost of unfettered capitalism. Kingdon might rightfully be Jennifer Baichwal’s successor if she delivers on the promise of this work. Ascension is poetic and profound with the sights it captures and its elegiac lament for another generation reared on false hope.


Ascension screens in Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema’s Best of 2021 series on Dec. 27 and Dec. 31. It streams as part of the Hot Docs at Home series beginning Jan. 6.



Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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