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A Film Review

Directed by Jessica Kingdon, released by MTV Documentary Films
US, 2021
English, Chinese dialects with English subtitles
97 minutes in duration

Film available on Amazon and AppleTV.
Trailer available on YouTube.

I love my company.
I love my colleagues.
I love my career even more.
My fate is tied to the company’s.
My glory bound to the company’s.
I am a member of the company.
I have been assigned a role in this company.
I have a great responsibility for this company.1

Ascension, a documentary by Jessica Kingdon,is a brilliant snapshot of contemporary, urban life in China today. So brilliant, in fact, that it was an Academy Award nominee in 2022 for best documentary feature.

The film shows the pursuit of the “Chinese Dream” across social classes and how the Chinese people are responding to wealth and progress, or even just the idea of it. Early on in the film, the manifesto above is recited by a company’s employees at the start of every workday, setting a representative tone as the film visually unpacks China’s philosophy of work.

Through a wide variety of vignettes from different parts of China, viewers gain a holistic view of how many are chasing the dream. From factory workers to aspiring entrepreneurs and business trainers, live-streamers  and multi-level marketers, mass construction and high luxury living, everyone is clamoring to get their part of the prize. From the working man selling snacks by the roadside to the butlers who are trained to know French desserts and Victorian greetings, everyone is in on the chase. The opportunities are endless so long as you can out-play/out-buy/out-sell the next person and keep climbing.

Ascension shows a very real side of China, and this may be uncomfortable for some viewers.

The pursuit of wealth is not a new concept. The long-standing “American Dream,” is “the belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society in which upward mobility is possible for everyone.” Sounds a lot like China today except the “how” is drastically different.

China comes from a very different and complicated starting point in its pursuit of wealth and progress. Tragic historical events within the past 70+ years have stalled and stunted China’s growth and development. In recent decades, China has not only been playing catch-up but also pressured to do it at warp speed. This accelerated pace of growth recovery leads to approaches and methods that many of us would find unnatural, awkward, or even flat out wrong—like business etiquette training that stipulates how many teeth (and which ones) should be shown when smiling.

It is easy for those of us from the outside to stand from afar and say things should not be done this way, endlessly debating how things should be done. But this misses the point entirely.

Firstly, the situation in China is far more complex and complicated than any one person can handle. We would like to think we could do a better job if we had the keys to the kingdom, and maybe in small ways we could, but it is arrogant to think we could right the whole ship so easily.

Foreign countries accuse China of denying human rights. But there’s so much economic inequality in our country so the poor must focus first on survival. If you can’t even survive, how can human rights exist?

Secondly, we are not called to fix a nation; we are called to love people. To do that, we have to see them as individuals whom God has created, each within their own context, struggling in an imperfect system. Of course, as Christians, we are also called to the public square, and where there is opportunity to fight for systemic change, we should most certainly take our place. But there are far more day-to-day moments where our focus needs to be less on the broken system and more on the hurting people.

After having lived in or close to China for 15 years, there is certainly much I do not agree with. But it’s not about agreement. It’s about understanding, in the sympathetic sense, as actual comprehension is not always possible. Rightly or wrongly, this is their reality.

I highly recommend this film, and while shock and disbelief are natural, I hope that we do not stop there. Let us move beyond, “That’s crazy and messed up,” and get to “Wow, this is what the Chinese people are up against,” allowing us to love the people of China better.


  1. Editor’s note: Otherwise-unattributed quotations are from the film Ascension.
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Hannah Lau

Hannah Lau

Hannah Lau was born and raised in Canada. Growing up with immigrant parents from Hong Kong gave her a rich perspective on both Eastern and Western cultures. She has spent her adult life in Asia, beginning in China serving through work in the marketplace. With a colorful and hard-earned career in …View Full Bio

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