Month: April 2022

Ascension (2021)

Written for RAF News April 2022

A documentary on a gigantic scale that targets the industrial machine of China, watching the flow of consumer goods and loss of individualism all through simple yet stunning observation.

Ascension opens to a sea of people in the street, jobseekers all being herded towards potential employers, the conditions announced through megaphones: 18-38, no tattoos, no hair-dye. One advertises a seated job, another offers standing, but both pay just over £1.50 an hour. Jessica Kingdon’s documentary sets out to show the industry of China by looking at the products being created, the people creating them, and the consumers who purchase them. There is no need for narration, the images speak volumes. 

Inside the factories, we witness the mass-production of everyday items such as water bottles, aerosol nozzles and ‘Make America Great Again’ baseball caps. Like TV show How It’s Made, there is a great satisfaction in watching the rhythm of the machinery producing a never-ending stream of objects: the hypnotic flow and tessellation, but the remarkable thing is how the people working in these factories become extensions of the devices they operate, with their own endlessly repeating movements. The last sign of humanness almost lost in their shared vacant expressions.

At times the documentary appears as science-fiction, watching the absurd mundanity of people assembling sex-dolls from parts, their cartoonishly proportioned bodies laid-out, mangled and decapitated, as they are put together and painted to order. It is eye-opening, shocking but also bizarrely funny.

We also witness citizens being prepared for the service industry: young men learn how to become human shields for the security business, whilst others learn complete obedience in order to be a butler of Downton Abbey merit. Full conference rooms are lectured on how to succeed in the ‘fan economy era’ and amass a following by monetising their knowledge; whilst others are taught the correct way to hug and how many teeth should show when smiling (it’s the top 8 in case you were wondering.)

The sheer size and scale of this film creates a dwarfing spectacle that is both staggering and entrancing – it certainly makes for strange and wondrous entertainment.

Compartment No 6 (2021)

Written for RAF News April 2022

Laura (Seidi Haarla) is a Finnish archaeology student in Russia living with Irina (Dinara Drukarova) her professor-turned-girlfriend. When the two of them are about to set off on a long-distance train from Moscow to Murmansk to see some ancient rock drawings, Irina flakes out, leaving Laura to go it alone.

Aboard the designated compartment on the train, she arrives to meet her brutish Russian cellmate Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), who immediately pulls out a bottle of vodka and unsheathes a portable cup as though it were a knife. In the blink of an eye, he is wildly drunk and so out of control that Laura fears for her safety. But there’s no swapping carriages according to the icy ticket inspector: she is in it for the long haul.

The confinement of this space is framed and focused in such a way as to create uneasiness and establish a power dynamic, of a predator encircling his prey. Ljoha is muscular and menacing, he has a shaved head and a fixed scowl, though we will glimpse cracks in the facade as we spend more time with him. Through the relationship between Laura and Ljoha in this claustrophobic space, we are offered an idea of what is going on behind the macho ideal associated with Russian men.

Borisov is convincingly intimidating as Ljoha, but is able to let a childishness shine through, as Haarla contends with the many worries surrounding her as a true fish out of water. A strange and inviting chemistry is caught between the two of them as they drift further into the unknown.

Filled with tension but relieved with humour, this is an interesting and intimate film. Through the great performances and style of shooting, it explores a shifting vulnerability, adding depth and context to the much-seen archetypes of beauty and beast.