Review by Camden Ferrell
Ascension is an observational documentary from director Jessica Kingdon. This film marks her feature documentary debut as a director. It had its premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival where it won the award for Best Documentary Feature. While it has some great footage and vignettes to communicate its core ideas, it feels like it lacks the substance to truly say anything profound about China in a modern and industrial age.
In this documentary, Kingdon tells the story of the “Chinese Dream”. Through footage of China’s economic landscape through various social classes, she aims to explore what this dream is and how it fits into a modern context. It’s an interesting premise that isn’t explored often and can be very timely, but the film unfortunately doesn’t do much to deeply explore the implications of its premise.
First and foremost, the footage is almost entirely well shot and composed. It’s dynamic footage that has a lot of kinetic energy to keep viewers engaged throughout despite the lack of guidance. It’s very similar in feeling and style as Users, another 2021 observational documentary. Much like that film, Ascension relies on a lot of viewer participation to piece together its themes and ideas. While this is interesting in theory, it doesn’t work out especially well in practice.
One of the things that was surprising about this movie was how Kingdon used this extensive footage to show how foreign the Chinese dream is to a westerner while simultaneously making this footage feel globally relevant. It also cleverly uses Chinese social class to structure its abstract narrative. These are some areas in which I feel the observational nature of the film limited its ability to deliver sharp and insightful commentary on the current state of China’s industry.
We see a country that values innovation and productivity as a means to an end. The film bombards you with imagery of life outside and inside work that are all so directly influenced by the modern nature of their economy. Does the film ever really discover a concrete answer as to what the “Chinese Dream” is all about? Not quite, but it does attempt to use its vignettes and execution to give you a better understanding than when you started the film.
Ascension has strong roots and some beautiful footage, but it often lacks in terms of execution. It’s one of the more complex observational documentaries I’ve seen, and it’s one that may speak to certain crowds more than others. While it may not take full advantage of its premise, it’s a unique calling card for Kingdon’s visual style as a documentary filmmaker.
Ascension is in theaters October 8.