Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

"From the first shot of a uniformed member of a cleaning team walking the tiled lip of a rooftop infinity pool this is the edge of image, the thing unseen."

Drawing an opening and closing from excerpts of a poem of the same name, written by an ancestor more than a century ago, Ascension is a portrait of 'modern China'. In the rhythms of edit and frame are echoes of word-choice, calligraphy, and in text, however pretty, is the invitation to subtext.

A hiring fair's megaphone says "a day over 38, don't come". A trainer says "pretend to be obedient". At the "star boss" workshop participants set out goals to earn hundreds of millions. A video billboard blacks out the eyes of those crossing when the little green man is instead red. That cat does not know its owner is livestreaming a makeup tutorial. The bicycles in their abandoned drifts (as seen in The Gig Is Up) do not lament that they are no longer pedalled, that the firm that peddled them is also broken and gone. The goats don't know these trainee bodyguards have failed to protect their boss.

Life continues unseen. From the first shot of a uniformed member of a cleaning team walking the tiled lip of a rooftop infinity pool this is the edge of image, the thing unseen. There are impenetrable industrial processes, insomniacs and children are fans of the mechanical monotony seen in upper-channel micro-documentary, but some of these processes are distressing.

Bins of barbecued birds are trimmed with scissors, carcasses in heaps long boiled to stock are sorted through for joint and jowl and lump and ligament. The welded skeletons for sex dolls are skinned in pinkish wobble, painted breasts are documented with ubiquitous smartphones against some catalogue somewhere. That false flesh is trimmed with scissors too, burnt back to position with irons of hundreds of degrees, holes not on the order sheet filled with something molten, not desire, more easily cleaned.

Screen-printing workshops spit out wallpaper one sticky gout of dye at a time, they skip in their paramilitary uniforms to their dormitories. Dogs chase a truck that would fill an urban postcode as it sprays water from a swimming-pool-sized tank to damp the roads of a mine. A wound in the world visible from space, like the bruised shoulders shown on social media for some intent.

A feature debut for Jessica Kingdon, serving as multi-hyphenate director/editor/etcetera to the point that 'filmmaker' would suffice, this is a high quality affair. Not just the mechanisms, two drone operators credited, Dan Deacon's score, crisp footage (even if digital) shot by her with the assistance of (similarly hatted) Nathan Truesdall. MTV documentary is likely to have helped with music clearance. It is very likely to have helped with the quality of translation, including of many of the signs and scrolling texts within these environments. These are often presented crisply, clearly, yet unobtrusively within the frame rather than as subtitles. They are good, but so is the film, and the efforts of its many makers. The access they have achieved is almost incredible, scores of locations before their cameras.

That sex doll factory, the severed heads and wigs dusted with talc before they are boxed and shipped, like the trenchbound dead with their shrouds of lime. "What eight teeth do we show when we smile?" they ask, when we had also seen spot-welded skeletons put through their recumbent ranges. The mermaid swims by almost unnoticed. Refraction splits the influencer/model in two.

A player piano (Schimmel) that recalls at once the predatory aspect of a spider and the swooping blue curves of an American car of the 1950s plays the theme of The Addams Family to empty staircases. The market may have an invisible hand but that Family's visible hand advertised FedEx once. The benefice of Jade Face to her followers is that they collect many packages, the goal that arms are sore from collecting so many packages. Aspirations are of their time too.

There is a school for butlers. A gentleman's gentleman might suggest that the better title for some of these functions was valet, but park that. Unthinking automata stitch "Keep America Great" upon a swatch of fabric. We see water bottles filled and capped and sorted, later in their lives, as waste. A T-Shirt says "Enjoy Stnirp cihiyviptrg" an exhortation that speaks to us all equally. I shall enjoy stnirp cihiyviptrg, as I watch blinged slippers tapping foot-pedals, besuited bodyguards practising J-Turns in dining chairs, a barge of bulging bags wending wearily across the water.

Poetry and film are at once completely different and close cousins. The Green Knight is both and neither, and Ascension is too. It draws one in, close, to the rhythms it records in the staccato chatter of factories and the rumble of needles, the steam of irons on shirt collars and cuffs that match because they have been selected on a deviant drop-down. It finds hidden meaning in open text, the empty ball-pit, the peristaltic push of the rubber-ring river whose course takes a tunnel through an aquarium. There are patriots here, not in uniforms or digital camouflage or singing hymns in praise, people who believe. You should see this to do so yourself.

Reviewed on: 09 Oct 2021
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Documentary portrait of the "Chinese Dream" - a contemporary vision of a China that prioritises productivity and innovation above all
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Director: Jessica Kingdon

Year: 2021

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: US

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