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Ascension review – surreal study of China’s embrace of capitalist excess

Jessica Kingdon's mesmeric fever dream of a documentary sets the benchmark for just how dispiriting a 2022 film can be

On paper, a documentary about the new form of Chinese capitalism and the ways in which it competes with America’s version sounds rather dry, an excuse for talking heads drumming up economic drama between two global superpowers. Thankfully, Jessica Kingdon’s Ascension is never so obvious, focusing on China’s varied labour forces, telling a story entirely through mood and image, the only spoken words we ever hear coming incidentally from the people in frame in the factories and training centres where Kingdon makes her home.

Ascension does follow a distinctly identifiable “story” structure, one that feels very fitting for its title, as we start in the bottom tier of horrendously repetitive and mundane factory work and slowly work up to the playgrounds of China’s new super-rich. All of these are compelling and depressing in their own ways, and Kingdon has a keen eye for some extraordinary images of the sheer scale of mass production and the waste it leaves behind.

The misery at play in Ascension’s work environments feels both modern and eternal. Training centres work at instilling a sort of willing self-dehumanisation for potential service workers, while middle managers record their staff in the pathetic hope that one of their achievements may go viral online. In one especially horrifying sequence, we follow the (largely female) staff of a sex doll factory as they request more areola paint and sand down plastic vaginas with all the resigned professional boredom of someone refilling a stapler. 2022 may have barely begun, but I can’t imagine there’ll be a more dispiriting cinematic sight this year.

Kingdon’s revolting yet fascinating frames are perfectly backed by a hypnotic score that works in unison with the various industrial noises that make up most of Ascension’s soundscape. The result is a mesmeric experience, a fever dream of casual cruelty and unchecked waste that you won’t be able to get out of your mind, even if you’d quite like to.

Ascension is now in UK cinemas.

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