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Ascension Is a Fascinating Look Inside the China That Wants To Be Like America

The Paramount+ documentary is on the Oscar shortlist, and for good reason.
  • Paramount+ explores the Chinese Dream in Ascension, a mesmerizing documentary by first-time director Jessica Kingdon. (Photo: MTV Documentary Films)
    Paramount+ explores the Chinese Dream in Ascension, a mesmerizing documentary by first-time director Jessica Kingdon. (Photo: MTV Documentary Films)

    It’s my privilege to be Primetimer’s voting representative in the Critics Choice Association, a group of about 500 full-time pros, mostly from the broadcast and print industries. This weekend the CCA — whose televised gala kicks off awards season in early January — handed out its annual documentary awards, which will serve as a cheat sheet for Oscar judges when they draw up their shortlist for best documentary film. As a voter who watched nearly all of the nominated films, I marvel at the technical and narrative advances that have transformed docmaking in the past two decades. What a time to be telling your stories to the world.

    The documentary field has steadily improved in both quantity and quality thanks to two key drivers: one, cheaper, better and smaller equipment; and two, cable TV. Cable channels like HBO and Showtime figured out a long time ago that top-drawer documentaries add prestige to their libraries for not a lot of money. Buyers from premium and basic cable would descend every year on the Sundance Film Festival, signing the directors of the most buzz-generating docs. TV money, in turn, has allowed docmakers to do more and better work.

    When streaming came along, all that got turned up to 11. Last year Apple TV+ paid an eye-popping $10 million to acquire the rights to Boys State, a documentary film that, in my opinion, was worth every penny. This year the Questlove doc Summer of Soul broke that record when Hulu shelled out $12 million for that thrilling find, which won in every Critics Choice category it was nominated for. 

    If it were me, these docs, upon being acquired, would go to streaming as quickly as possible, before the Sundance effect evaporated and awards season passed. But I realize that there’s a lively commerce in community film festivals, like the True/False festival I’ve attended over the years in Columbia, Mo. And I get that filmmakers want their lifework to be seen in the cinema by small congregations of appreciative filmgoers. But these are stories the whole world needs to see and hear, and thanks to streaming TV, getting these stories in front of millions of viewers in cinema-like settings (i.e., home theaters) is possible for the first time ever.

    Which is why I’m pleased that today Paramount+ is making its Oscar frontrunner Ascension available on the streaming channel. From first-time director Jessica Kingdon, Ascension, along with Summer of Soul, led all other films with six Critics Choice Documentary Award nominations. And much like Questlove’s musical ode to 1960s Harlem, Ascension reveals a previously unseen side of American life before our astonished eyes.

    The side of America we see in Ascension, however, isn’t actually filmed in America, but in China — specifically the factories where trillions of dollars in manufactured goods are built and shipped to consumers around the world. It is inside these mills of cheap and efficient labor where so many of the goodies that we associate with the American way of life actually get made.

    Kingdon and her co-cinematographer Nathan Truesdel gained access to 51 sites across China that make everything from smartphones to bottled water. Unabashedly channeling the great Frederick Wiseman, director and shooter lovingly observe the employees, their repetitive tasks, their mundane chitchat and just the sheer fascinating process of stuff getting made. A significant chunk of time is spent inside a factory that makes custom life-size silicone-mold sex dolls, an editorial decision that I fully endorse for its amusing and disturbing weirdness.

    Photo: MTV Documentary Films

    The title, Ascension, is a tell as to the film’s propulsive narrative arc. Starting at the lower rungs of the Chinese labor market — the open-air markets where young unemployed people gather to be wooed by megaphone-toting factory recruiters, who bark out their offers of good pay and free wifi to anyone who boards their bus — the viewer effortlessly ascends the prosperity ladder all the way to the top tier of Chinese society, to the massive entertainment venues, upscale shopping centers and luxury lifestyles that are the spoils of those made rich by their country’s capitalist experiment. (China’s dictatorial regime is now clamping down on private enterprise, so the word experiment is key.)

    The film’s throughline is that a generation of young Chinese want a better life and associate this almost entirely with the wealthy West. “Has anyone seen ‘Downton Abbey’?” asks a teacher in a school for training butlers. In another scene, bodyguards learn how to protect Westerners with money. Later, a group of young professionals talk in admiring tones about the United States, though they are careful (or maybe just respectful) to express their love for China and, touchingly, their desire to improve the way of life for their countrymen, many of whom have not even laid a hand on this new economy’s ladder.

    Ascension is the first major pickup for MTV Documentary Films since Sheila Nevins took the helm. Nevins, a national treasure, spent 30 years building HBO’s documentary division from the ground up, taking in a haul of Oscars, Emmys, Peabodys and whatever else you can award brilliant nonfiction filmmaking. MTV is a division of ViacomCBS, which means any films Nevins develops will likely land on Paramount+. I’m delighted that this one has come to streaming so quickly. And how ironic that with millions of Americans quitting their jobs to chase their dreams, we should have such a compelling look into another society where the jobs that we wouldn’t be caught dead taking have given an entire society the chance to chase their dreams.

    Ascension is now streaming on Paramount+.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Ascension, Paramount+