Art of the Cut: Seeing Another Side of China in Oscar-Nominated “Ascension”
Like most successful documentary makers, Chinese-American producer/director Jessica Kingdon makes bold choices with her projects. These have included sex doll manufacture in It’s Coming!, transgender surgery in Born to Be, and a study of China’s largest wholesale market in Commodity City.
Across her growing career, this work has collected a number of awards. She was named as one of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film by Filmmaker Magazine and made it into the 40 Under 40 list at the 2020 NYC film festival. Which seems prophetic now that her latest documentary, Ascension, earned her a nomination for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Oscars. Ascension examines the pursuit of “the Chinese Dream” and the realities involved in fulfilling the global supply chain.
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HULLFISH: Not only are you the editor, you’re also the director and one of the cinematographers, so you really have your hands in all the aspects of the film, but we want to talk about editing. One of the things that I wanted to start with is the way it starts. So tell me about your choice for the very first shot; it’s a shot from above a rooftop and people walking right along the edge. Why choose that? How does it go into the rest of the film?
KINGDON: Overall, the film is kind of an unconventional film. It’s full of these visual puns or free associations, and we have no central characters and no narration or interviews. The film is ultimately more visually-driven and ideas-driven in terms of that first shot that you’re referencing.
I didn’t know that was going to open the film until maybe midway through editing, but in that one shot, there are so many juxtapositions that we see, and it embodies a lot of the ideas in the film.
The film is loosely about the pursuit of the Chinese dream and what that looks like today. It’s about this quest for upward mobility and a study of materialism that’s present both in China but also in the rest of the world. I thought this one-shot exemplified a lot related to the extremities of wealth income inequality.
There’s an inherent tension and drama in that shot. It’s this rooftop pool that’s on the top of a luxury residential building and this woman who presumably works there is teetering on the edge of it as she’s trying to clean the pool, and there’s no netting or anything.
I was just watching this as a bystander; I happened to be shooting at the butler school, funny enough. I saw this woman out of the window, and it was just such a breathtaking shot and that there’s so much inherent tension in it. So we got it, and then it just made sense to open the movie with it.
HULLFISH: The movie continues from that point on with guys using bullhorns to try to bring workers to go work for their company. Talk to me about that.
KINGDON: This scene is a low-wage job market for companies such as Huawei or Foxconn, which are huge tech companies. I only found the structure towards the end, even though it’s quite obvious and the structure is loosely ascending the class ladder. So in the film, we start off at the base of the tower of capitalism, where people are looking for these low-wage jobs to work at companies like Huawei and Foxconn, which make smart phones.
Overall, the film is about a physical exploration of these hidden economies that power day-to-day consumer-driven lifestyles. That’s part of why the film starts in that low-wage market and then ends with a rare earth mineral, mine, and rare earth minerals are what are used to make smartphones and other high-tech devices.
Even though it’s not explicitly said, the film is book-ended actually by these physical sites of economies that have to do with the tech industry and consumerism.
HULLFISH: Talk to me about the evolution of the movie. How it started out and how it evolved throughout the process.
KINGDON: Editing this film was a crazy process. [laughing] As I mentioned, we have no central characters, we have no narration, and it’s more conceptually driven. It almost could have been anything, and in some ways, it was harder because I had to impose a structure and a way of understanding the world.
However, simultaneously I could be more flexible, so with the scenes, I thought of them as modular, like building blocks, I could move them around.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about what some of those building blocks were. What are some of the scenes? What are some of those modules?
KINGDON: So the film is loosely structured in three parts. The first part has to do with labor and factories. The second part has to do with this quest for upward mobility and aspiration, and new types of labor created out of the new elite class in China, and the final part is about leisure and consumerism. There are cracks in between all of this, of course, but that’s the overall main structure.
The building blocks for part one focus on factories and labor. So I selected different types of factories that both would have things that are immediately identifiable for an audience, such as plastic water bottles and Trump paraphernalia because at the time it was during his reelection campaign, but also things that you don’t exactly know what they are.
For example, the spicy duck neck factory, where these duck necks are being sorted, and a factory for smartphone screens. I wanted all of the factories to blend into this almost continual factory, so it feels like we’re being carried along, and we think we’re settling into one place, but we’re not actually settling all.
In part two, the modules had to do with different types of training schools. So we have etiquette schools, butler schools, bodyguard schools, a school for being an entrepreneur, and we have sections of live streamers who are trying to create their own brands and promote their products.
The modules at the end involved something to do with malls, waterparks, and with an elite class at a dinner party. A lot of it was this tension between scenes that had dialogue that had a more explicit way to make meaning out of it versus the scenes that are more slippery, that could be read in any number of ways. Scenes that maybe don’t have as much dialogue or have dialogue that leaves you wondering what they’re talking about.
A lot of it was playing with something where you can extract meaning and something where you have to be left, comfortable enough to take things in without trying to make meaning of them.
HULLFISH: Early on, there was a point where someone said, “A sense of worth and the Chinese dream.” You used a bunch of jump cuts. Can you talk to me about the value of jump cuts and why you use them at that point?
KINGDON: You are the first person to ask me about it; I’m glad that you noticed. I think it’s the only part in the film where we do have jump cuts, and it was one of those things where I put it in, and it looked cool to me. I initially thought that I was going to take it out later because I didn’t think it would work with the rest of the film, but in the end, it ended up working because, in the opening scenes, we were doing the world-building and setting up the world we are living in.
So seeing these kinds of propaganda signs that are around Chinese cities and construction sites with these directives to citizens about how to behave and what to expect. How to be a model citizen and work hard so your dreams will be rewarded.
I was showing those signs, but then showing the daily life of all of the people passing in front of the signs, people on bicycles, people with kids, people with strollers, and it made sense to do this jump cut, to show that this message is being held steady by the Chinese government, by the CCP and then showing this flow of different types of citizens coming and leaving the frame.
HULLFISH: That’s similar to when you said you weren’t sure about the first shot. I’m really interested in the process of discovering the right shots and not exactly knowing everything right from the start, especially for young documentarians.
“A lot of times, I’d feel internal resistance about how to go forward with it since it felt so high stakes, and I didn’t know what the answer was.”
KINGDON: The filmmaking process itself, the shooting, the researching was a discovery process, but the editing itself was really a discovery process. A lot of times, I’d feel internal resistance about how to go forward with it since it felt so high stakes, and I didn’t know what the answer was. Especially with a film like this, a film that doesn’t have a story that’s already happened. It’s something you’re discovering as you’re crafting it; you don’t know if it’s going to work until it works, and that’s a terrifying bet that you’re taking.
For young people, it’s okay to fail, and I think failure is part of the whole process; it’s important to make films that don’t turn out well, but it’s still something that you have to go through and be willing to fail which is scary because nobody wants to fail.
When I did bump up against these moments of resistance and not knowing where to go forward with the cut anymore, I would set up timers for 20 minutes or 40 minutes where I couldn’t look at my phone or browse the internet, and all I would do is watch footage and see what spoke to me. I would watch my cut over and over again to see what spoke to me.
Nine times out of ten, when you’re setting an intention and giving yourself a set amount of time in order to sit with the uncertainty of what your footage is, you’re going to have ideas, especially if you protect that block of time.
HULLFISH: What was the schedule like from when you finished shooting or the body of it to when you actually had a finished film? What was that time period?
KINGDON: We went to China four times, and between each trip, I would come back to get all of the footage translated. I’m not a fluent Mandarin speaker, so we had to work with translators to get everything translated, and then I would start making cuts. Part of it was about fundraising and working on different cuts for the grants, so it’s hard to say.
The editing started early on in 2018 and what’s funny is as an editor, it feels like your work is never done, especially since I was also the director; it was hard for me to let go of it. I literally was making edits until my colorist came over to my house and had to physically take the hard drive out of my hand. He was coming in 20 minutes, and I was still making little changes; this was around May 2021.
We submitted the film to Sundance, and it didn’t get in and it not getting in was actually helpful for me to go back and open up my cut and just keep editing. When we submitted it to Sundance, I thought I was done, but then when we got the rejection, it freed me up to keep going and to take even more risk. I think that the film became more creative after that; I was able to lean into these moments of free association or more psychedelic aspects of the film after I had the ground-level structure set up.
HULLFISH: I love some of those moments too. It makes the film so cinematic. Let’s talk about score and maybe what you temped with.
KINGDON: Dan Deacon, who’s a fabulous musician who scores films as well, was the first person that we approached early on in the process after the first shoot; because of that, we were able to score with his stems. So he made some temp music, and I was able to use that, which was great because there’s that whole thing about people getting too attached to the temp music.
That actually happened to me a little bit because before we got him on, I was using a score that he had done from a different movie. Thankfully it didn’t last that long; otherwise, I would have gotten too attached to it. He came on board and was able to give us some stems. The process of the scoring and the editing were happening simultaneously, which was really fun, so as the cut would evolve, so would his score, and we would send each other back and forth, and it was this interesting feedback loop.
HULLFISH: Have you ever seen Powaqqatsi or Koyaanisqatsi?
KINGDON: Yes, The Qatsi Trilogy
HULLFISH: There were moments in your film that reminded me of them either in a visual sense or some other sense that was similar. Did you have any films that were driving a muse from?
KINGDON: Yeah, Godfrey Reggio definitely is a film hero of mine, but he’s not someone who I would explicitly reference because it almost seemed too grand to even presume. Not that the other references weren’t great, but I actually wasn’t expecting people to pick up on that as much as they do.
I think it’s really cool that people bring it up, but I was more rooted in the observational tradition. Frederick Wiseman’s films and other observational filmmakers really allow these unexpected and poetic moments of human interaction to emerge. To really be able to pick those moments out and elevate them into a film.
There’s actually one scene in a Wiseman film called The Store, which takes place in Dallas in 1984, where these female shopkeepers are being trained about the proper way to smile and present themselves to customers.
There’s a scene in Ascension that mirrors that, which I didn’t realize until after I shot it. It’s the scene with the woman at the manor etiquette school where they’re learning how to put on a smile in order to get ahead in the workplace.
There are a lot of echoes there that I thought were really cool, and then more formalist styles of filmmaking, Our Daily Bread by Nikolaus Geyrhalter and Workingman’s Death by Michael Glawogger are some other more visual formalistic references. I try to treat it almost like a narrative film where it’s not the information or the facts that are being conveyed. That is the priority. It’s creating this sort of cinematic world and unique language to the structure of the film.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about that structure. You talked about how there are three parts to it, but let’s talk about the modules and deciding which modules would follow, which modules, because like you said, they’re modular, they could be moved, and they could be shuffled.
Why did they go in the order that they did?
KINGDON: There was so much back and forth and feedback, and I was really lucky to be supported by a lot of grants and labs. So within those labs, I did the True/False Rough Cut Retreat, the P-Lab, and the Film Independent Lab. There were a lot of mentors and other fellows who were watching the cut and giving feedback.
I realized there was an art to receiving feedback, especially when you receive so much of it. I was the main editor, but I did have my partner and producer on this project as an additional editor; he was there also as a sounding board and really intimately helped craft scenes with me, but since we didn’t have an outside main editor, it was mostly me having all of these other voices around was helpful and was giving me outside perspective.
It’s also important to know when to listen and when not to listen, and there’d be times where I’m getting a million different reactions from the same thing, and at some point, you just have to be done because you can’t please all of them, you have to choose which one you like the most.
One of the biggest humps that I had to get over with the editing was, as I mentioned, the film being loosely structured in three parts. The first part takes place in factories, so audience members think that they’re watching a film about factories. The hump I had to overcome was, how can I transition a film that takes place in all these factories and then suddenly takes place in waterparks or in a school for butlers? How could that possibly make sense? So it was the transition into the other parts and figuring out how to make that transition that was the most challenging.
Part one ends in this sex doll factory, which felt like the most logical conclusion to everything we’d seen before. It was the most exploitative idea about creating this replica of female bodies in order to be exploited, and yet there was so much paradox within that scene.
There’s this camaraderie and tenderness that the female workers demonstrate towards one another and attention to detail with the dolls as well. It’s not like the other factory scenes, these dolls are actually artisanal, so there’s a lot of high level of skill involved. One challenge with that, too, was that scene was so striking that I was worried that it would overshadow everything else and that the rest of the film would feel less powerful in comparison to it.
I had to actually pare it back. There were things that were far more outrageous, but it just wouldn’t have fit within the same movie, so we had to get out of the sex doll factory. I had a few different versions of scenes that came after it, but the one that we landed on was this cafeteria scene where it’s mostly women who are eating their lunches, then we have this factory training scene where it still feels like we’re in a factory so we could still be in the same world, but people are being trained in order to have this orientation to level up within their factories.
That training segment overlapped with the next segment that comes after it, which is entrepreneurial training, and that’s slowly leading the audience by the hand, suggesting maybe this isn’t just about factories and labor; maybe this is about something bigger. I liked the idea of an audience not even realizing that we’ve left that world until we’re far away from it.
HULLFISH: That’s exactly the effect it had; that’s very impressive. I love that. That transition, especially from the first act to the second act, had to be the hardest one to move on from.
KINGDON: If that doesn’t work, then the whole film doesn’t work. It’s just a film in three different parts that doesn’t blend together. This goes back to what I was saying before. You don’t know if you’re going to be able to pull it off until you do, and that’s the scariest part about it. We initially had chapter headings in the film, and I feel like people have really strong opinions about chapter headings.
“You don’t know if you’re going to be able to pull it off until you do, and that’s the scariest part about it.”
Some people love it, and some people feel like, “It’s a movie, not a book; why would you do that?” But I had maybe five chapter headings, and I organized the different module sections around the headings. I got a lot of feedback saying we didn’t need it, and so I came to think about them as sort of training wheels or scaffolding, something I could take out after I had everything built.
It was in the back of my mind; I knew what each of the chapter headings was, and I knew what the organizing principle of them was, but we didn’t need the audience to know that; it’s something that you feel more than see. When taking the chapter headings out, I was allowed to let myself slip in these other unexpected visual moments between the scenes.
There’s this one scene of these gamers who are in an internet cafe playing games all day, and then someone says this line that’s from a game, but also this old idiom that has to do with phoenix feathers. Then we see a close-up of ostrich feathers, and we pull back, and we realize that we’re in a petting zoo, and this is an ostrich that we’re looking at.
Another scene is of a CEO during their end-of-year gala talking about the Chinese dream and being rewarded if you work hard. On top of that dialogue, I had scenes of an aquarium. These were things where I didn’t know if I could get away with them until I pushed it, and sometimes I could, and sometimes I couldn’t. You just have to earn it, and once you earn it, it feels great if it can pay off.
There is a starfish shot that comes right before the waterpark section, and it’s this long, lazy shot of a starfish, but the lights slowly start to change, and the water is moving a little bit, and then the score comes on under it. Something about it for me just worked, and I felt an inherent tension in it. I wasn’t sure if an audience member was going to feel that or not, but I did. So I kept it in.
HULLFISH: You mentioned there’s an art to taking criticism. You have to be able to look at a comment that someone makes about your editing or your film, and if it’s true, you’ve got to have the right attitude to be able to accept it.
KINGDON: There’s an art to receiving, and there’s an art to giving. People aren’t always good at expressing what they mean. I’ve heard it described as the note beneath the note; it’s being able to diagnose what the underlying issue is.
When you understand what the underlying issue is, there are usually many solutions for it. I think the art of editing or the art of directing and making any sort of creative decision is being able to select which solution you think works best for you.
HULLFISH: Some people are just trying to make a different movie than you are, and you have to realize which notes are about your movie.
KINGDON: There was one thing that I tried that everyone said wasn’t working or that it felt like a mistake. It was at the rare earth mineral mines at the end of the film with those landscape shots. I tried to put some voiceover from the waterparks scenes over it to create a bit of dissonance, but either it wasn’t landing or just felt too sarcastic.
I don’t want anything to come off as judgmental; I want to convey the idea that we’re all in this together. So that landscape part was taken off, but I bring it up because I think it’s important to try pushing the boundaries on these things and see how far you can go before it just breaks.
HULLFISH: Did you use story cards on the wall?
KINGDON: I did, especially since it’s in different chapters; I had note cards with different chapter headings, and beneath those chapter headings, the different individual scenes or visual images that I had in there. A lot of it was organized in this crazy structure.
One of the cards was just called Starbucks, and even though Starbucks doesn’t appear in the movie, the word meant something to me, so holding that idea of “What does Starbucks embody?” This sort of Western convenience, for me, sparked a lot of other things.
HULLFISH: I really want to talk about those transitions because there’s one that I really loved, the transition between the bodyguards and the butler school.
KINGDON: That’s actually my favorite cut in the film. I might’ve even discovered it a little bit by accident. So in the two scenes, there’s a bodyguard school where mostly young men are being trained in order to become bodyguards, and their ideal job is protecting a very wealthy individual, but in reality, a lot of them end up working as security guards for malls or restaurants.
The scene following that is a school where people are being trained to be butlers, and their ideal job is to serve a private family or an individual wealthy person, but a lot of them work at high-end restaurants afterward. The idea of the two scenes is to show the new Chinese elite and the types of service jobs that the Chinese elite create and what these training schools look like, and the ideologies underneath them.
There’s so much physical violence, and masculinity and physicality in the bodyguard school and then the butler school is very refined, yet the two of them are really serving the same idea. That’s why I put this cut in the bodyguard school, which ends where these guys are all beating each other up; basically, there’s this guy on the floor, and everyone’s hitting him with sandbags, and then there’s a hard cut.
I love hard cuts. There’s a hard cut into the next scene, no explanation. We just cut to the middle of a butler training school scene. The two images are almost twinned together where it’s a similar framing, and the two are almost like tableau shots that could almost look like a painting.
“I knew those two scenes were going to go next to each other, but I didn’t know those two shots were going next to each other.”
I knew those two scenes were going to go next to each other, but I didn’t know those two shots were going next to each other. That was a happy accident. It was this hitting of two different ideas together to create something new.
HULLFISH: In the influencer section, there’s a really interesting thing that you did with sound design, where they’re talking about wanting to succeed as a brand, and eventually, it mixes out to the score, and they’re still talking, but you can’t hear what they’re saying. Talk to me about that choice.
KINGDON: I would say that ultimately this film is something that is more meant to be experienced and felt rather than understood, so this shot is this influencer, who’s selling shoes, and she’s holding the shoe that’s really close to her face and talking to the camera, and there’s a ring light in her face that you can see.
I thought it was such a beautiful shot, even though this shot is about cheap products that you can buy online. There was this unexpected beauty to it, and I wanted to really highlight that rather than focusing on all of the things and the specifics that she’s talking about, zone out to the bigger picture. I think when we take out the dialogue and bring up the score, it allows the mind to make different types of associations that you normally wouldn’t.
HULLFISH: You’ve worked on a bunch of different positions on documentaries, you’ve been a DP, you’ve done just editing, You’ve done directing and producing; how does your editing skill and experience speak into those other jobs
KINGDON: while I’m shooting, I’m always thinking about the end process and the editing, and so I always think it’s important to get certain establishing shots, et cetera. The thing that’s more nuanced is the length of the time that I hold the shots.
For Ascension, in particular, we shot everything mostly on sticks, so it’s all static shots, and it’s the kind of film where the moment the camera moves, the shot is broken, and I can’t use it anymore. Months later, looking at footage that I would shoot in the editing room, I would see the camera moves, and I would get so frustrated with my past-self [laughs] I just try to set a rule for myself where I’d have to hold each shot for at least one or two minutes without touching the camera.
It’s hard when there’s so many things going on, and you want to try to catch as many things as you can. The thing about that is you can end up with shots that could work but nothing that works perfectly. You’re going to have to make sacrifices when you’re shooting, so I was just trying to be as disciplined as possible in terms of not touching the camera, even if it would mean missing out on another action.
For the most part, we use one camera, but sometimes we had two cameras, and we tried to cut it so that it looked like we always had just one camera. There were times where I would cut to a different angle, and usually, it wasn’t necessary. I realized that for my film, each different angle had to be motivated by something very specific, and if there wasn’t any reason to show a different angle, It was better to just stay with that one take,
HULLFISH: Tell me about editing from a technical standpoint; you chose to edit on Premiere Pro. Why Premiere Pro?
KINGDON: I find Premiere Pro really intuitive. I enjoy working in that space from a very logistical standpoint; it’s really easy to link between the proxies and the originals, and in a film like mine that was really visually driven, I would toggle back and forth a lot.
I’d see an idea of what it would look like, but then seeing the full resolution, I could imagine it even better, and that helped inform the editing a lot. I’ve edited in Avid before; I think there’s more of a learning curve for it; once you get it, people love it. I got into it for a while, and then I got out of it, and then I wasn’t as motivated to get back into it.
HULLFISH: What are some of the other things that you like about Premiere Pro?
KINGDON: I really like the project and bin structures. I had so many cuts; I had eight assemblies, nine rough cuts, twelve fine cuts, thirteen different versions of fine two cuts, but in terms of bins and searching for things, it was very intuitive.
HULLFISH: Did you use Frame.io?
KINGDON: I used Frame.io with my sound designer Gisela; we used it to give specific notes on the sound design and what I like about Frame.io is that you can actually draw in it.
HULLFISH: I would never think that talking to a sound designer, you would need to draw. [laughs]
KINGDON: [laughs] Yeah, but it was very specific things like in this film sound was so essential, and I wanted to get as much first-person audio as possible so we would mic people even in situations where you don’t think they necessarily need it.
There’s this one scene in a plastic water bottle factory where this young woman is putting labels on plastic water bottles, and she takes a break to unscrew a thermos of water. Just hearing that unscrewing of the lid was so key to me to keep into that scene, so we focused attention on that.
Of course, there’s this paradox of she’s in a plastic water bottle factory, but she’s bringing her own thermos to drink. Hearing the unscrewing of the lid just gives us such a visceral sense of it and so what I could do in Frame.io is I could literally draw a circle over that thermos and say this is the specific thing to pay attention to within this scene.
HULLFISH: how do you maintain objectivity when you’re the director and the editor?
KINGDON: I think that’s why the labs, mentorship, and having all of these different people giving me notes was very helpful, but also taking breaks, and this is random, but physical activity, like exercise and doing yoga. A lot of ideas would come to me during those periods of time.
With editing, you’re not moving, you’re just sitting so still it’s so stagnant, and so I’m one of those people whose ideas come to them when I’m physically moving. I would try to work in periods of exercise into my editing days.
“It becomes a completely different thing when you’re watching it with someone versus watching it alone. It completely shifts how I see the material.”
Another technique for getting distance I found was just watching it, even with one other person. It becomes a completely different thing when you’re watching it with someone versus watching it alone. It completely shifts how I see the material.
There’s a weird thing that happened to me, where I would notice every time I exported a version, I would automatically want to make changes. You can see the mistakes more clearly once it’s flattened and baked into a final edit. That’s when you can see the flaws.
HULLFISH: I would love to talk about a couple of specific scenes, and we’ve got a little iPad with some scenes. Could you walk us through a couple of them?
KINGDON: This is one of the waterpark scenes that I was talking about that deals with consumerism and leisure; it shows the grandiosity of this whole machine that we’re living in. I think of this as a structured kind of fun; you can see that there are actually different roles where people are standing. You hear the announcer saying, “We hope all of you students can get into your dream school.”
So this fit into the theme of Ascension and upwards mobility; even though it was taking place in this leisure water park area, it made sense for the film. This film has so many different ways that it could be edited and so many different motivators that push the edit.
We have this grandiose landscape of an enormous waterpark with this overhead drone shot which I thought paired towards the end of the film of this rare earth minerals which is also this grandiose landscape shot. The big difference is that this is a scarred earth kind of feeling; they are two very different subjects, yet they felt like they belonged in the same film together.
When trying to figure out how to structure things, I would wonder if these are the types of places that I should put up against each other, and there was an earlier cut where actually they were next to each other, but then this became less about the visual grandiosity and more about the energy and excitement and celebration. That’s why we actually are in a club right after this shot is not in a water park. It’s a completely different location, it’s in a club, but it was capturing that energy.
HULLFISH:S Tell me a little bit about the water theme and why have those kinds of themes that aren’t explicitly stated in the movie?
KINGDON: This was another one of those things that I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to pull off or not until It was finished, but throughout shooting, I noticed that water kept coming up, and so I was thinking of water in this almost metaphysical sense, this most basic elemental life form that we all need to survive.
“It’s cheaper and more convenient to experience a simulation of nature rather than the actual thing.”
I was thinking of the ways in which humanity and capitalism manipulate it or co-opt it. Something that makes me personally sad is I think that in late capitalism, it’s cheaper and more convenient to experience a simulation of nature rather than the actual thing. That’s why there’s a scene in one of the largest buildings in the world, which is in Chengdu.
There’s this indoor waterpark theme where the announcer says something like, “I hope you can enjoy the waves here and feel close to the sea and the sun.” To actually go to the sea is more costly than to go to a mall and experience a simulation of it.
A lot of it was exploring these different simulations, and then at the end, we do have a water scene, and it’s one of the only times we see a natural body of water that I feel juxtaposes where we see people outside of the age of working, and it’s the only time where we don’t have that kind of structured fun.
In terms of, what’s the point of putting in a theme that an audience member might not get. I think that even if it’s not directly said, it might seep in, in some sort of unconscious way that people aren’t even aware of, and I’m okay with people taking away their own ideas and meanings from it. I think that’s what art is about too.
HULLFISH: Let’s take a look at the scene at the sex doll factory.
KINGDON: We get into the sex doll factory scene where we’re seeing a close-up of toes and a bunch of bodies hanging and what looks to me like body bags, so it feels very menacing. It’s striking to see these women who seem lighthearted and are actually even laughing here and bouncing around happily, looking like they’re joking with each other.
I love the paradox of this scene because, on the face of it, it’s a menacing and exploitative space, but then people who are working here form this camaraderie with one another and are helping one another.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about the sleeping scene. There’s a scene where it’s just various people sleeping.
KINGDON: There is a section of the film that’s just people taking a nap. I’m not going to pretend like I know what that means, but it could mean a lot of different things. In terms of the structure of editing, one potential line of thought I could go down is if this film is about the Chinese dream, here’s a scene where all these people are sleeping.
What if everything that comes afterward is a dream? That’s why I think it becomes psychedelic afterward, people at the top of a water slide getting ready to go down, and there is this Alice in Wonderland feel about it.
There were so many different intentions and different reasons why, but it was important to be able to articulate an idea of why as a starting point and let it take on its own life. The film is asking who benefits from it and who benefits from capitalism in general and who is left out of that dream?
I think that subtly this whole idea of people napping and dreaming is in the back of people’s minds. It’s bringing that question up.
HULLFISH: I remember one of the shots was a guy in a sleep pod, and I was trying to figure out how do you know when you’re done with this shot? How long do you sit on this shot of a guy sleeping?
KINGDON: I was thinking about how distressing this focus on efficiency is, and that was a pod at a tech startup where people can take naps during the day. Sleeping is such an intimate, most private human moment, and when we try to make it most efficient and put it into the workforce, it brings to question all of the ideas I was talking about in my film related to the progress of economic progress.
It’s interesting you thought about that one shot specifically, maybe because there’s no movement, and in the other sleeping shots, there’s some sort of tension like maybe someone is breathing or their chest going up and down, but in the one, with the pod, it’s very static. So in terms of how long I knew to hold on to it, I would say it was probably the music or something that dictated that length.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about the crypto shot and its reason for being there and why you had that in the film?
KINGDON: There are a few moments actually where a crypto mine shows up, but most people will not know what it is. I had a hard time with that at first because it was really hard to access these locations, and it was important to the idea of the film to have the paradox of the cryptocurrency minds. It’s these physical sites of new types of wealth creation. It’s the cutting edge of global finance, but they’re in these totally remote mountainous regions that you can’t find at all. The juxtapositions there were super interesting to me.
“China, in general, is already a hot-button issue. People see scenes there and already have lots of strong opinions one way or the other.”
I found a way to give a quick visual blip of it and weave it into the film, and even though you don’t know it’s a cryptocurrency mine, I’m hoping that there’s something sort of dystopian about these machines. I put that right before the scene of these wealthy elites who are having this dinner party together as a nod to this new money and wealth being created, even though it’s in a completely different world.
I think China, in general, is already a hot-button issue. People see scenes there and already have lots of strong opinions one way or the other. I was hoping to present images that can allow for a multiplicity of meanings to arise without people having to immediately take a concrete meaning away but also allow for contradictions to exist within the same shot.
One example I was thinking of is this Trump paraphernalia factory, where we were seeing “Keep America Great” being embroidered onto fabric. We’re seeing that bring the audience one way, but then the next shot after that is of a sewing machine making unicorns and flower patterns. It’s all in the same process, all in the same factories, and your mind just goes somewhere completely different; I just like that emotional whiplash of those cuts together.
HULLFISH: And on that note, I just want to thank you for a great interview. Thank you so much. Good luck at the Oscars.
KINGDON: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed this.