TRIBECA 2021: ‘Ascension’ Is a Masterful Dive Into China’s Workplace Culture

Reading Time: 3 minutes


Through silent observation, Jessica Kingdon’s extraordinary documentary Ascension immerses us in the Chinese workplace culture to allow us to draw our own conclusions about progress.

The “workforce” tour is total and engaging. Kingdon first visits a busy job market, where large billboards and recruiters with megaphones advertise numerous job openings, the conditions for obtaining them, and if any, the privileges of being hired. Free Wi-fi, lodging minutes away from the factory, or the privilege of sitting while working are some of the best perks available.

Next, Ascension takes us to factories, assemblers, and even a bicycle graveyard to observe the hypnotic work processes, as well as the final results. And among all this, we hear glimpses of conversations about the relationships between worker and employer. Still, outside of that, the identity of these people seems lost among infinitely repetitive tasks.

A woman embroiders the slogan “Make American Great” on some jeans, a Youtuber gives a beauty tutorial, and, in one of the most fascinating sequences, a group of women mold, assemble, makeup, and photograph life-size dolls with huge breasts intended to be used as sex toys. The images speak for themselves, and Jessica Kingdon doesn’t have to explain. She doesn’t judge either; she just watches and lets us watch so that we can be the judges. 

Not everything stays in factories. We see new workers go through a boot camp to learn to respect and be loyal to the company. They are workers turned into Chinese soldiers learning to sacrifice their individuality. Later, we attend bodyguard training, a session on “how to monetize your personal brand,” and etiquette courses, where the speaker coldly breaks down how to do something as simple as receiving and giving a hug. It seems like a satire, but it is real.

Dan Deacon’s original score is more than a companion to this labor orchestra; the music, at times slightly disturbing, feeds a robotic atmosphere with futuristic overtones. It draws you in.

The cinematography has power. With the help of Nathan Truesdell, Kingdon dazzles through panoramic and artistic shots of the various places we visit. The focus is on the worker. When we are at a party, we see everything from the DJ’s perspective. In the middle of a crowded water park, we can see lifeguards frantically keeping an eye on the hundreds (or maybe thousands) of people swimming around them. We learn a little about every profession, but that’s not the main objective of the film.

Gradually, Ascension moves through society until reaching an upper-class dinner where elites paradoxically speak of their love for the country and their longing for freedom. Like the lower class, they have in their heads the idea of reaching the “Chinese Dream.”

Society has sold these workers the promise of the Chinese Dream, but what exactly is that dream? Is it learning to endure insults from bosses in a butler academy? Is it working all alone, repeating mundane tasks for hours? Is it falling asleep at a table during an exhausting workday? Is it going to the company’s party and be told that “wealth only goes to whoever deserves it” by the rich boss? Jessica Kingdon allows us to draw our own conclusions.

The amount of labor examples compiled by Ascension is staggering, and no piece feels out of place because each one is aimed at the same goal: to showcase Chinese ideas of productivity and the manipulation of the workforce. China’s economy is booming at the cost of individuality. Everyone seems to be a cog caught in a machine of consumerism.

Ascension had its World Premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, where it will be available to stream until June 23.

  • 9.5/10
    Rating - 9.5/10


The amount of labor examples compiled by Ascension is staggering and no piece feels out of place because each one is aimed at the same goal: to showcase Chinese ideas of productivity and the manipulation of the workforce.

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