“Ascension” has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

The documentary is directed by Chinese-American Jessica Kingdon. Kingdon most recently won Best Director Documentary Feature at the 2021 Tacoma Film Festival.

In honor of Women’s History Month, Chinosity is recognizing Asian American women in the film industry

“Ascension”’s nomination continues the trend of the Oscars recognizing ethnic Chinese women. Last year, Chloe Zhao was the first woman of color, first Chinese woman and second woman ever to win an Academy Award for best director. 

Kingdon is one more noteworthy woman making her mark in cinematic history.

The documentary is an impressionistic exploration of the pursuit of wealth in China. 

It portrays a contemporary view of the country’s progression in innovation and productivity. 

As noted by critics, many documentaries portray the harsh conditions of blue collar workers. But Kingdon uses cinematography to display these jobs in a new light.

About a third of the film encompasses various shots from job fairs, factories and employee training.

Multiple aerial shots of mass production stick out in the film. Examples included bicycle storage, recycled bottles and clothing textiles. 

The aerial shots of these products symbolize the current state of the workforce. They represent the inequality in China’s wealth distribution.

In a panel with Asia Society, Kingon said that many viewers will interpret these factory shots as “cogs” in a wheel. While this may be true in some ways, there is a deeper meaning behind it in the larger picture of the documentary.

The film references the “Chinese Dream” throughout. Motivational phrases written on walls read, “Work hard and all wishes come true” and “Be civilized and set good examples.”

A poster shown in the film that displays the words, “WORK HARD. AND ALL WISHES COME TRUE.”

Employers preach statements such as, “You must monetize knowledge” and “Make money the legitimate way…there is much inequality in the economy.” 

Conversations among individuals filmed state, “The poor are looking to survive…if you can’t survive, how can human rights exist?”

As the film explores the various levels of China’s working, middle and upper classes, we see a paradoxical balance. 

This balance is between the light and dark side of the workings of a capitalist economy and the desire for global consumer progress.

In another Asia Society at the Movies conversation, Kingdon said, “The contradictions are laid bare.” 

The film holds space for two truths at once: individuals have hope and believe in economic progress and the system has exploitation and income inequality. 

“Ascension” shows the hope and dedication from all classes. 

The documentary shows training for business entrepreneurs, salesmen, video influencers and butlers. The training displays the value each individual places on their job.

It is engraved in their minds that their fate is tied to the company. Individuals have to work as a unit to bring success for the company and thus success for themselves. They live by a company bible and develop five to 10 year plans to ensure they make millions.

The film brings in a variety of perspectives on how each individual views their work, the current economy and society as a whole. 

Some believe technology is a useful tool and make millions from it. Others believe it is an illegitimate way to be successful.

Furthermore, the ideas of wealth and education are questioned. A butler training company encourages, “Let us be enlightened citizens.” But how should we be enlightened?

China is growing because more people have access to global education. Individuals “have the desire to explore the truth and long for freedom,” as stated in the documentary. 

But participants in an upper class dinner make the argument that this exploration is too complex. They say “the government should just tell them the truth.” They think individuals do not need to explore these global education resources.

These contradicting ideas are all topics of conversation as China looks towards further progression.

Jessica Kingdon

Kingdon gives angular perspectives from various cities in China. Together they represent the problematic distribution of wealth. 

The power of her documentary is not in that she provides “an answer” to the problem or even her own perspective. Instead she shows individuals’ interpretations of their own lifestyles. 

Kingdon’s documentary has grabbed the attention of viewers from around the world. Everyone can relate to this ambiguity and the exploration of the global supply chain and consumerism. 

In addition, it encourages the viewer to reflect on their own country and the power they hold on a global scale.

Kingdon’s phenomenal story does not end here. 

As she formed this cinematic masterpiece she was able to explore her own family’s history within China, specifically in the city of Changsha. 

The surprising find of her grandfather and great grandfather’s history in Changsha gave her the title of the film. Her relatives gave her a book filled with poetry from “The Great Poet Society,” which her great grandfather was a member of. 

An excert from Kingdon’s great grandfather’s poem “Ascension” that is shown at the beginning of the film

Kingdon’s exploration of the poems transformed “The Untitled PRC Project” into “Ascension.” She believed the poem best represented the film’s idea of the paradox of progress. 

You can watch “Ascension” on Amazon Prime Video, Paramount+ or Vudu. 

I highly recommend taking the time to view this documentary. 



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Caroline Liekweg
Caroline is a writing intern from the University of Southern California, majoring in Human Biology and minoring in Chinese for the Professions. She hopes to use her writing to address and understand cultural connections between China and Western countries.