Ascension, review: from sex dolls to duck carcasses – a hypnotic study of work in China

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A graveyard for black-and-yellow rental bikes, seen from above in the remarkable Ascension, is like an Andreas Gursky photograph come to life – one of his godlike, hyperreal visions of consumerism. The shot floats back to show hundreds of nested frames in a cluster that looks almost organic, like something bees might do. The next image is of two stray dogs atop a mountain of discarded fake turf, one of them with ears pricked up as it clocks the drone overhead.

From these two particular shots, you wouldn’t necessarily know we were on mainland China, where the debuting Chinese-American documentarist Jessica Kingdon decided to focus her entire study. It’s an impressionistic essay, narrative-free and largely driven by her compositional choices, about the country’s work ethic, aspirational economy, and its symbols of conspicuous consumption. No one is interviewed, though we hear human voices quite often (with English subtitles) in the hubbub of Kingdon’s many sequences in factories, training centres and industrial plants.

Gloved hands sort through a debris of duck carcasses for snacking and ready meals. Machines fill and plug plastic water bottles in their thousands. Overheard are two workers on a shoe production line, talking about the common habit of buying the boss his lunch, to ensure getting paid for more hours’ work.

The film highlights such inequalities on the fly: Kingdon doesn’t speak Mandarin, and often wasn’t aware of the verbal content until her footage was being edited and translated. “No matter how he humiliates you, pretend to be obedient,” a room of service industry trainees are told about their putative future employer.

The access achieved here is something else, thanks to a team of field producers who scouted some 51 locations across China, including Genghis Security Academy in Beijing, where the recruits pummel each other raw and have their gun-toting exertions made to look like cool adverts on Instagram. Perhaps the most eye-popping sequences unfold in a factory for sex dolls, where the dispassionate, largely female staff are shown painting on areolas, smoothing cavities and giving giant silicone breasts a rubdown.

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