It’s been said of those who attain wealth suddenly that rather than changing character, it’s revealing of it, a notion that seems to illuminate Jessica Kingdon’s dazzling “Ascension,” capturing China as the effects of opening up its economy have begun to take hold. As a cosmetics executive that the director spies on at a conference estimates, consumption of goods in the country could be five times more than America, a radical idea in a place once accustomed to state-sanctioned rations and while being in the early stages of a booming economy would seem to offer an opportunity to broaden its benefits to all as it’s built from scratch, the new China, which may have a lot more entrepreneurs, still looks an awful lot like the old exploitative economic models from around the world if one is to take a closer look at the labor chain.
Naturally, Kingdon starts at a cattle call for employees set on the streets, filled with signs of encouragement touting workers having the the pick of any job they want, but this doesn’t mean employers aren’t selective. Prospective candidates worry they might not be suitable for any number of reasons unrelated to their skill set, told they can’t have steel plates in their body or tattoos on their skin. The dire ¥16 offered per hour (translated to $2.36) hardly seems worth it and is bound to inspire eye-rolling, but the director doesn’t want the situation to be easily dismissed, shrewdly conveying it aesthetically with a sprightly and orderly presentation where the unique and unruly human touch stands out. In scenes set inside factories or company training sessions, the inherent contradictions of a society where there’s every reason to be hopeful about its future financial outlook and yet still no responsibility felt to deter exploitation organically come to the fore.
There’s a showstopping sequence set inside of a sex doll factory where it’s difficult to decide what’s more grotesque – the decadent fantasy of plasticine women with cartoonishly large breasts that sit on shelves or the workers’ complaints of burns from handling all the chemicals involved — but it’s just one delightfully absurdist moment of many that Kingdon locates, yielding an unexpected workplace satire as much as a trenchant observation of how prosperity has only reinforced a preexisting class system and cultural attitudes. Working its way up the economic ladder from factory workers to those who want to run their own business, “Ascension” keeps an eye on the lessons imparted to the newly empowered aspiring to build their brands, attending etiquette seminars where women are told how to apply makeup when “Every lady is a business card,” and the wait staffs for those who have already become wealthy, accompanying training sessions for butlers explicitly prepped to stay professional in the face of their bosses’ likely boorish behavior.
America is rarely mentioned, but when the world’s largest economy for over a century has been seen as a model for China, “Ascension” has the rare ability to identify all the corrosive byproducts of consumerism everywhere its seed has been planted when it so clearly shows the deleterious impact on the environment in the production of plastic-based products that can be seen mounting up for one-time use to the proliferation of entrepreneurial seminars that peddle an improbable path to success, never mind all the unnecessary goods they’re intended to help ease into the market. With eye-catching cinematography from Kingdon and Nathan Truesdell illustrating the entertaining glimpses into the Chinese economy that would make for compelling short films on their own, “Ascension” is every bit as alluring as what the industry would like you to see, but it goes far deeper in demonstrating how critical a part of contemporary infrastructure is building a narrative in which everyone believes they have a chance at great fortune if they just work hard enough when the wealth they create ultimately ends up in the hands of a select few. A bigger economy is bound to exclude more and more from this prosperity moving forward, but with such an arresting film, Kingdon doesn’t leave them behind.