Ascension: The Rat Race in “Communist” China

A Documentary
Directed by Jessica Kingdon

If you think America is the land where people desperately fight for a piece of the pie, you should see how it works in so-called “socialist” China. Jessica Kingdon’s spellbinding, narration-less documentary shows the People’s Republic as a country of paupers scrambling to raise themselves financially – or at least to create the image of wealth and good breeding.

And for those few who make it, there’s nothing meaningful at the top.

Judging from what Kingdon choose to put in the final cut, China is the ultimate capitalist economy, and that’s not likely to change. Her cameras get into merciless factories, classes on how to at least appear rich, and training sessions that seem like torture. How the camera crew got into some of these places I have no idea.

Ascension starts with those at the bottom of the ladder. A loudspeaker tells young people how to dress and behave if they want a job. Then we see young men placing identical bicycles into a truck. It turns out there are a lot of such bikes.

Women (and a few men) work in soul-killing factories. One young man watches a soap opera on his phone while working – there is nothing to occupy his mind. Kingdon spends a surprising amount of time showing us a factory making full-size sex dolls. The dolls, of course, are all white. Surprisingly, each doll is unique, and you can see that the workers have a bit of a say on how each doll will come out – a little bit of something like art in a low-paid job without stature.

In China, corporations assume that their employees belong to them. New workers learn company songs and are told what to read and what to believe.

We watch what looks like an army boot camp, and it can get violent. What are they? Possibly the police, or more likely a company army. A real tough drill sergeant screams and kicks one young man who clearly can’t make the grade.

Much of the film involves the ascension from one economic class to another in a supposedly classless society. People take lessons on how to act so that people think you’re an aristocrat. And from there, people hope for wealth. But more likely, they’ll continually live a dream of wealth.

The final part of the film shows the rich enjoying a lifestyle that would make Mark Zuckerberg blush (I hope). Very few get to the that economic and social position. In one scene, a few wealthy friends have a Downton Abbey-like dinner, served by people learning to be proper butlers. At the end, the film makes sure that the cost isn’t worth the price.

Perhaps Kingdon exaggerates. She may have ignored a majority that is moderately comfortable but not exceptionally wealthy. But I doubt it. Nevertheless, Ascension offers a likely view of much of the world’s most populated country.

Ascension opens November 12th at the Roxie and the Elmwood.