Ascension at the 94th Academy Awards
Jessica Kingdon's Ascension (登楼叹) has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Here's what I wrote about it last year (as an associate producer).
We interrupt this hiatus of Yellow Canary Land 🐤 for a special look back at Ascension, a film for which I served as associate producer. Ascension is up for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature alongside Summer of Soul (Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised), Flee, Attica and Writing With Fire.
To celebrate the incredible achievement of Jessica Kingdon, Kira Simon-Kennedy and Nathan Truesdell, I’m republishing my original write-up of the film from its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in June 2021. Tune in to the Oscars this Sunday to join the celebration, and catch the film streaming online, from Paramount+ to YouTube to Amazon Prime Video and more.
Starting today [June 13, 2021] at 6pm ET through June 23, Jessica Kingdon’s gorgeous, thoughtful film, Ascension, is available for streaming in the United States for the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. The film is produced by Kingdon, Nathan Truesdell and Kira Simon-Kennedy, and I was honored to serve as associate producer and thrilled to see the full film yesterday on the big screen at Hudson Yards. It lands during a time of tremendous interest in China and capitalism, and the venue was apropos, with the infamous Vessel as a backdrop, ascending upward behind the big screen.
Kingdon’s related short, Commodity City (2017), also produced by Simon-Kennedy, took a meditative look at Yiwu Market, where so many of the world’s goods are traded and sold. Ascension (登楼叹) takes us on a longer, more meandering journey through factories, a Bitcoin mine, a water park, and a class for influencer marketing. That China plays a key role in global capitalism is a well-known story now. What’s less known is the role global capitalism plays in China. Kingdon tells a cross-section of the lives of people living the Chinese Dream, a vague promise of urban growth and development started in 2013 and whose slogans occupy the opening sequences.
When describing the film to friends, I say it’s like an extended haiku or renga, rather than the usual essay format that many documentaries take. Kingdon and Truesdell oftentimes train their camera on singular moments, lingering on small details like the way a young woman practices a graceful nod by measuring the distance between her chin and her chest with her fist, or the slow motion reactions of young people barreling down a water park tunnel. In many ways, it reminds me of the times I’ve spent sitting and watching life in China go by, not seeking to explain or understand but just instead aiming to be present. I’ve seen very few films capture that very necessary skill of simple observation in the face of tremendous change.
It turns out that calling Ascension a visual poem is more than a metaphor, by the way—Kingdon’s great-grandfather, Zheng Ze (郑泽) (1882-1920), was a famous poet himself! Hailing from Hunan and editor of the Changsha Daily paper, he wrote a piece in 1912 called “Ascension!” (登楼叹) in which he describes looking north, south, east and west and sees tumultuous waves, sandstorms, hurricanes and overcrowded cities in all directions.
Kingdon uses the closing verse of his poem to close the film:
I ascend and look far into my heart only to find that everywhere is already razed
During the Q&A session at Tribeca, I asked her about the relationship between the poem and film. “It was written in 1912 when there was a lot of political turmoil,” she explained, referencing the end of the Qing Dynasty and the formation of the Republic of China that year. “In the poem, he’s contemplating this double edged sword of progress, which is also what this film is about. In the poem, he ascends to a height where he’s able to see all the political turmoil around him and sighs out of some sort of heaviness. I thought that attitude mirrored what this film was saying as well.”
Because of its quiet cinematography and a gorgeous soundtrack from electronic musician and composer Dan Deacon, the film rewards immersion and re-viewing. Take your time with Ascension: it’s in the in-between moments that Kingdon’s vision most comes to life.
Tune in to the Oscars this Sunday to join the celebration, and catch Ascension streaming online, from Paramount+ to YouTube to Amazon Prime Video and more.
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