Released: 15th November 2021
Seen: 21st March 2022
In the book Introduction to Documentary, film theorist Bill Nichols breaks down the film genre of documentaries into 6 modes (AKA subgenres), those modes being Poetic, Expository, Observational, Participatory, Reflexive and Performative. Each of these genres is fairly easy to understand and I’ll link to a great post that describes all of them but they’re often handy to give you an idea of what kind of documentary you’re in for, so when I say that Ascension feels like a combination of Poetic and Observational it tells you that this film is going to have some beautiful visuals and just be a fly on the wall following several people… it’s also kind of dull so here we go trying to talk about a film I’m not fond of just because it’s kinda boring, that’s gonna be fun content to make.
Ascension’s main idea is the pursuit of the Chinese dream, shown by slowly going from people trying to find a job through the assorted hard work that people are expected to do all day and culminating in viewing those who have climbed the ladder and gotten to the top but want more. It does this largely by pulling the camera back and showing these groups going about their day, artistic shots of certain locations or bits of manufacturing and eavesdropping on certain conversations, seemingly without the documentarian being involved. It all revolves around this vibe of ascending up the corporate ladder and showing the many ways people try to get by.
To give Ascension its due, it is fantastically shot. The elements that’re just these long shots of machinery working or dramatic overheads showing the scope of certain things are just stunning enough that frames of this film could be sold as computer screensavers and people would pay an obscenely large amount of money to have them… or maybe even as a poster, just spitballing here.
Every single image in Ascension is crisp and clean, there’s a strange beauty in every shot and even a little bit of humour to be found in some of the framing, it’s kind of hard not to giggle like a schoolchild watching people construct a sex doll (specifically doing something that looked like it involved inserting a soldering iron somewhere you wouldn’t want one… it’s an image that gives Sleepaway Camp curling iron vibes, if you catch my drift) while having the most casual mundane conversation you could imagine. The look of the film has a quality that is impossible to deny… provided you can keep your eyes open for it.
While Ascension is certainly a visually fascinating way to explore the topic of progressing the social classes, the focus on intensely pretty visuals means you have to be fully engaged and that’s harder when there’s nothing to really latch onto in terms of people we’re following or a story being told. Maybe this is just a personal limit, that’s an absolute possibility and undeniable, but there’s just a lack of things to grab hold of with this documentary that makes it tough to engage with.
You can certainly catch onto the ideas Ascension is putting out there and it’s so pretty that you can just kind of zone out and let the imagery overwhelm you but, and it could just be me but I doubt it, it’s just so one note that it felt like it took so much longer than 90 minutes. By the time the film ends it feels like all you’ve really learned is that some jobs are hard and only a few will make it to the upper classes and most of us already know that already so it just doesn’t have much to grab you, beyond the aforementioned stunning visuals that certainly make this worth a look but not much more than that.
Ascension is undeniably beautiful, a visually interesting film that shows off the beauty that one can find in even the most mundane of places… unfortunately, that mundanity is still there, slowly eating away at you until you just kind of tune everything else out. With any luck maybe there’s something more here you can grab, but you would have to be in the exact right mood to fully engage with this and more power to you if you can.