2021 was a good year for documentaries, and the Oscar nominations actually got it right. At the least, the four nominees I have seen are all very good, and classic at best (Summer of Soul being my choice for best movie of the year). Jessica Kingdon (along with co-cinematographer Nathan Truesdell, who is crucial to the film) had the idea to show the "Chinese Dream" and the impact of capitalism ... she doesn't shy away from big topics. She has mentioned being influenced by Frederick Wiseman, and it shows ... Ascension lacks narration or even explanatory information, with Kingdon and the cameras being observers, not participants (at least in theory). The result is like Wiseman's more abstract work, like Meat. The film always looks interesting, and Kingdon has done great work in the editing room. She may not explain things in an overt manner, but the flow of images can be entrancing, and, like Wiseman, she lets the viewer construct meaning from those images. Dan Deacon's score adds a lot to our appreciation.
Kingdon films in China, and it's easy to assume Ascension is specific to its locale. But what we as viewers bring to the movie matters ... an American will react to certain scenes about work and workers based on our own experiences, but we don't have a monopoly on the meanings. If nothing else, Kingdon shows us regular Chinese workers, without the propaganda that influences how we think about working conditions there. Again, Kingdon's film is not judgmental. But you do get a feeling for the mentality of the Chinese worker, just as you would watching a documentary about workers of any country. What we get from Ascension is a people who are told that hard work leads to success. Kingdon lets us decide how true that statement is, or how it works in reality for Chinese workers.