The Austin Chronicle


Not rated, 97 min. Directed by Jessica Kingdon.

REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Oct. 15, 2021

Focusing her camera on the rising cogs in the machine of China’s insatiable consumer culture, Jessica Kingdon expands on her 2017 short “Commodity City” with the visually stunning feature Ascension.

Beginning with a symphony of street barkers enticing crowds of future workers with reasons why their company’s the best (a job sitting down and a dorm with only four other people are popular perks), the film travels up the ladder, rung by dehumanizing rung. Manufacturing labor, that intricate marriage of absurdly specific machines vomiting parts and the human hands that assemble them are captured with a poetic keenness. We are in the realm of the aesthetics of labor here, the aesthetics of excess, the massive scale of these capitalist industries sliced down to mesmerizing abstractness, an endless array of meaningless products marching inevitably toward a landfill.

But how to move these meaningless products, these new shoes, these new vape pens? Well, to help you navigate this new “fan economy,” there are training seminars teaching you how to expand your reach in order to move the merchandise, because, you know, it’s an “influence or be influenced” world out there, and you need to know how many teeth to show when you’re smiling (it’s eight). Knowledge must be monetized and the world must aspire and thus adapt to these new forms of capitalism.

Ascension often veers into the surreal, made more unnerving by Kingdon’s static camera and long takes, not to mention Dan Deacon’s quietly eerie score. But as surreal as it may at first seem (“Look at these crazy Chinese kids and their wacky company cultural training boot camps!”), there is absolutely no difference between China and the Western world in the underlying market forces at work here. We’re all headed there: China just got there first because it’s the most populated country on the planet. As one of the many banners in front of a factory intones “Sense of worth. Chinese dream.” You may also add, “Welcome to the machine.”

A version of this review ran as part of our Tribeca Film Festival coverage.

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