Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky’s documentary, Manufactured Landscapes (2006), did a wonderful job of depicting the brave new world of large-scale manufacturing in the early 2000s, particularly in China, with its acres of space, armies of workers and miles of assembly lines stretching out seemingly to infinity, producing consumer goods for everyone on Earth. We could almost see Ascension, the highly watchable new doc by Chinese-American filmmaker Jessica Kingdon, as a sort of sequel to that earlier film—except that it concerns itself exclusively with China.
We could all learn a lot about how the world functions by watching this narration-less movie. Director/film editor/co-cinematographer Kingdon arranges it in three parts, beginning with a montage portrait of factories where workers create an endless supply of products. Everything we see is a real-life component of the “Chinese Dream” economy: recruiting on a city street —$2.99/hour “sitting work”; a parade of merchandise—smartphones, car accessories, vape pens; rules for prospective workers—“No ear studs for men,” “No tattoos”; high-tech public infrastructure and billboard slogans—“Work hard. And all wishes come true.” Not to mention free public bicycles by the thousands.
The pace never lets up. Workers sort duck parts in a poultry plant. A woman with bandaged fingers punches out plastic fittings. Acres of disposable plastic bottles are readied for use. And, of course, the plastic waste load is tremendous. The effect of witnessing all this vigorous industriousness is hypnotic, especially when accompanied by Dan Deacon’s urgent synthesizer and string music.
There are telling differences between Chinese and American business standards. “Why don’t you ever buy the boss lunch?” asks a supervisor to a laborer. Try to imagine that exchange in a U.S. factory. In one workplace employees talk of a haunting—maybe the boss’s feng shui sword will keep the ghosts away. An argument over hours worked takes place on the floor of a clothing assembly line. A textile foreman urges workers: “Don’t get your slobber on it. Work faster! No more chit-chat!” A load of scarves gets appliqués announcing: Keep America Great. A morning pledge of allegiance to the company, recited by uniformed employees, takes place in front of one manufacturing plant. Other workers perform calisthenics in military fatigues—maximum mind control. We begin to wonder how higher-paid, more skilled employees are treated.
Maybe the scene at a specialized type of plastic fabricator answers that question. Here’s how to build a mannequin, starting with a metal skeletal structure, to which is added a variety of plastic physical characteristics. It soon becomes obvious that the workers, all women, are in fact creating sex dolls, anatomically correct—to a degree—female figures with vaginas, absurdly nipped-in waists and enormous, cartoon-like breasts. Some actual artistry is involved—“Come, paint the areola for your own doll,” urges the supervisor. Facial features are painted by hand, heads adorned with colorful wigs. Again, an inquiring mind might speculate ironically: Could a version of these puppets, or their male counterparts, be programmed to perform factory jobs? Or perhaps even to become government operatives? The documentary never overtly editorializes, but the ironies are inescapable.
After observing conditions in Chinese factories, it’s a relief to move up the socioeconomic ladder to examine the training of people to sell some of these products to the country’s burgeoning middle class. Yes, there are influencers at work in the Mandarin-speaking internet, primped and drilled to the max. Security guards and waitpersons, same deal. Courses are conducted with Western table manners.
And then a glimpse of life at the top of the heap, China’s moneyed leisure class, with golf driving ranges, shopping malls, water parks and video games. As befits a society of 1.4 billion souls, everything is done en masse. The Chinese, once upon a time portrayed as starving, seem to be putting on weight. And they’re intensely aware of the U.S., including comparative rates of consumption. Let’s remember that on our next trip to Shanghai.
Streaming on Paramount+.