An evocation of the so-called “Chinese Dream,” Jessica Kingdon’s observational documentary “Ascension” serves up a clockwork array of industrial imagery that mesmerizes as it also surprises and unsettles. Its three-part structure offers glimpses across China’s class divides, from the lowliest workers milling outside a recruitment site to the country’s almost facetiously indulgent “one percent.” The scenes, propelled by indie composer Dan Deacon’s original score, often have a kind of geometrical flair — whether it’s an overhead shot of the gleaming yellow metal in a “bicycle graveyard” or the flow of dozens of pink floats, occupied by bathers in a water park.
“It’s the kind of aesthetic I’m drawn to,” said Kingdon, whose MTV Documentary Films release is among 15 films on the Academy Awards shortlist for documentary feature. She also edited and shot the film, along with cinematographer and producer Nathan Truesdell. Her 2017 short “Commodity City,” a portrait of the world’s largest wholesale mall, in Zhejiang, China, was made with a similar eye. “A lot of the places we were shooting in China were visually stunning to begin with. I had to get out of the way and allow those visuals to speak for themselves.”
“Jessica does this wonderful thing with her editing,” said Truesdell, who first met Kingdon in 2016, when they were both in residencies at the Points North Institute during the Camden International Film Festival in Maine. He describes an extended sequence of an immersive factory scene. “Very musical … with people working. I feel like the audience looks at that and says, ‘Oh, I think I know what this is going to be.’ But then there’s a moment where it shifts. We’re in the water bottle factory and a woman looks right at the camera and kind of looks into your soul. It makes you realize, oh, this is humanity. This is not about mechanics. It’s about labor and the people that do it. It’s not only about humanity in China but humanity everywhere.”
The filmmakers shot at some 51 locations in four trips made during 2018 and 2019, rigorously scouted in an endeavor that required taking no for an answer more times than they could count. “I’d probably say no,” Kingdon said, with a laugh. “It’s totally fair. It’s a numbers game. You had to ask a ton, a ton, a ton of people, and reassure them. Some people were worried about things I never would have anticipated. One person, who was running the plastic bottle factory, was worried that we were going to hit him up with a bill afterwards.” At another site, the filmmakers were suspected of being “corporate spies trying to steal their tax secrets.”
Kingdon is eager to make clear that “Ascension” is not about labor exploitation. She wants to ask a different question. “What about when labor is the ‘good’ kind. Is it still a good thing?” And what of leisure? In a sequence set in a computer gaming parlor, rows of men sit before screens as their fingers flail violently over keypads, chain smoking as waiters serve soft drinks. It appears scarcely different from repetitive factory work.
All these moments are further animated by one of the year’s most exciting original soundtracks. Baltimore composer Deacon, whose eclectic minimalism also enlivened such recent nonfiction efforts as Theo Anthony’s “All Light, Everywhere” and the PBS series “Philly D.A.” Deacon came onboard early enough in the production of “Ascension” for the filmmakers to fully collaborate, sharing notes and sounds over weekly Zoom calls, as footage was put together. The score, driven by strings and percussive elements, also integrates factory sounds and other sonic elements recorded in different locations. For all its playful stretches, the music provides the most abstract sequences with a heartbeat. “In addition to his talent, he also brings this natural empathy,” Kingdon said. “He’s always trying to put himself in the other person’s shoes while looking at the footage.”
Kingdon found some final inspiration, and her film’s title, in her Chinese family’s lore. Before a shoot at an air-conditioner factory in Changsha, in Hunan province, she was reminded by her mother that her great-grandfather was a famous poet from the city. “My mom always told me about him, but I didn’t know if it was real or not,” Kingdon recalled. The local historian showed her a book of her great-grandfather’s poems, including the one that introduces the film, and gives it a name.
“It was written in 1912, the last year of the Qing dynasty, the last empire of China,” she said. “In the poem, the narrator, who is presumably my great-grandfather, ascends to the height of a tower, and from that vantage point he’s able to survey the land and sees all of the chaos that’s happening, and that brings him great anxiety.” Kingdon was immediately struck by its similarities to the film. “I was thinking about class ascension and economic ascension in order to relieve our worries, but instead there’s all these unforeseen consequences.”