How can you compete with a factory that pays hourly wages of $2.36? At least they are not using slave labor, as in Xinjiang. Still, anyone doing business with companies like Foxconn and Huawei are definitely benefiting from sweatshop-like conditions. In China, socialism found its perfect mate in oligarchical crony-capitalism. Both rely on a highly state-regulated economy. The result is a dramatically-stratified class system. Jessica Kingdon observes the inequality and conspicuous consummation without commentary in Ascension, which screens as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
True to its title, Ascension ascends its way through contemporary Chinese class structures (something Mao claimed to be doing away with while killing millions of Chinese citizens during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution), starting with the exploited migrant workers. Companies like Huawei employ carnival barker-style recruiters, promising wages in the $2.00-range and maybe even the possibility of a sit-down job. However, the work is monotonous and payment of wages is dependent on the goodwill of capricious supervisors. Greasing palms is necessary even on the factory floor. Plus, the employees of a surreal sex doll factory complain the chemicals they use burn their skin.
The first part of Ascension is by far the most instructive. The middle section documents middle class striving, including some rather pointed scenes from various service training-academies that supply the de-humanized butlers and bodyguards to serve the new class of elites. However, the time devoted to Taobao’s product-hawking live-streamers is rather redundant for anyone who has seen Hao Wu’s People’s Republic of Desire.
The “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” third act is by far the most problematic, especially when a Fuerdai dinner party talks off-handedly about making business trips to Xinjiang, where the CCP has orchestrated a genocidal campaign against the Muslim Uyghurs and Kazakhs. This is an instance where a little context and maybe even some challenging questions from the filmmaker would be helpful. Honestly, the film cannot just drop that reference and then ignore it.
Commodity City, Ascension features some amazing visuals, strikingly lensed by her and co-cinematographer-co-producer Nathan Truesdell. They capture the ostentatious hubris and tacky kitsch of China’s nouveau riche and the go-go economy that is rigged in their favor. There is a lot of money to be made in China, including for NBA players like Lebron James, who ignore what is happening in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, to keep the endorsement deals flowing.
Kingdon and Truesdell also show what life is like for the worker-drones at the bottom of the food chain. Many of their sequences are quite telling, but the film never really congeals into a cohesive statement. The sum of its parts is probably greater than its whole, but some of those parts are indeed quite interesting. Worth watching for experienced China-watchers, but probably not for general audiences, Ascension streams through June 23rd as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.