Directed By Jessica Kingdon
Where I Watched it: Paramount Plus
English Audio Description Available?: Yes
The Plot: There is no plot.Ascension is a documentary largely centered around life in China, from an observatory standpoint, across many different paths and walks of life.
What Works: If you were to visit Epcot at Disney World, you would be able to visit the world showcase, where several of the countries featured have short documentary films representing life in their country. This could (except probably for the sex toy assembly sequence) be one of those films, specifically and obviously for the China pavilion.
It doesn’t feel like propaganda. It really doesn’t feel like much of anything. it just feels like someone was allowed an amazing amount of access to film whatever they wanted in China, and they captured life as it is. Almost like if you assumed China was some war torn third world country, Ascension is here to prove otherwise.
Observational documentaries are a thing, but they still end up with a voice, so they are not totally objective. Ultimately, the filmmaker still has to sit down and edit all the footage they captured into a film. Kind of like how you don’t always post all of the selfies you take. you filter out what you don’t want. So the idea that Ascension lacks direction or purpose is a fallacy, because it was edited into a very specific set of sequences with things left out and things kept in. Does it work? obviously for some, as this film has an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. But observational docs will not be for everybody.
What Doesn’t Work: i had to pop over to IMDB to get the basic information on this prior to the review, and their description is some leading bullshit. There is no through line in this film. It just captures life at various points, with different Chinese citizens. It’s almost as if this film was meant to say “China isn’t that bad”, but it doesn’t go full propaganda as some of the random citizens do talk about their love of America, Downton Abbey, and various aspects of western culture. It’s not asking you to move to China.
So then what exactly is Ascension/ Is it this striving for perfection like IMDB suggests? Not really. The film spans so many different ways of life, it’s hard to say this is really about anything. You see factory workers, regular people trying to learn how to hug, and even a glimpse of gaming culture in China.
Ascension has no narrator. It has no voice. It only voices itself through the selection process of which scenes were kept, and the order in which you view them. Sadly, there’s many versions possible of this film, edited differently, with different scenes, that wouldn’t change the movie at all. I’m sure of that.
So that’s why the film doesn’t work for me. It’s too wide in what it seems to want to do, and shooting broadly I’m not sure pays off. Though, who am i? Again, this is an Oscar nominated documentary, though I would argue that there are multiple documentaries that deserved this slot more. Procession, The Rescue, LFG, and Val all managed to say something, anything, and did so with the same presence of mind by the filmmakers in the editing room.
They weren’t just passive fly on the wall films that exist seemingly just to remind us that the Chinese people aren’t weird, stupid, poor, or helpless (at least on a large scale). I never thought that. China is a strong economic force with a giant population, and despite my concerns with it’s many human rights violations, and unhealthy obsession with making sure they keep Hong Kong under their thumb, and dreams of being able to do the same with Taiwan, I know their people have normal jobs, are educated, and have conversations.
This film gave me nothing. It felt like a waste of time. A well made, but still purposeless documentary. If we made a film like Ascension in every country around the world, eventually we might find a country we know so little about that it pays off. Sadly, China is not a country that seems so alien to its core audience.
The Blind Perspective: This film has no narrator naturally, so it was nice to have the English audio description, not just because it dubbed over the Mandarin, but it also actually gave an idea of what was happening contextually in each sequence. Without the description, this film would be unwatchable unless you speak Mandarin.
Final Thoughts: I’m honestly a little angry, and a lot disappointed. I expected something, at least a film of purpose. Is it well made? Probably. but made for what? Is the voting branch just acknowledging the director’s ability to get all this footage from China?? Because, otherwise, I can’t really understand why they voted for this film instead of other stronger docs that have a goal and story. This has neither.
Final Grade: C-