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Tony Hsieh-produced movie up for an Oscar

Updated March 25, 2022 - 4:04 pm

A film co-produced by the late Tony Hsieh is up for an Academy Award.

“Ascension,” a series of vignettes centered on the “Chinese Dream” pursuit of wealth, has been nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards. The ceremony will be at the Dolby Theatre in L.A. and is scheduled to broadcast at 5 p.m. Sunday on ABC.

Hsieh and his brother, Andy, are formally listed as executive producers, or as investors and not in creative roles in the production. The film was released to widespread acclaim in 2021.

Directed by Jessica Kingdon, “Ascension” is a chronicle of China’s vastly divergent socioeconomic platforms. The film is divided in three parts, the working class, middle class and upper class.

Kingdon’s crew explored more than 50 cities, delving into operations of such low-scale environments as a sex-doll factory, bicycle manufacturing plant and a bodyguard training school.

Hsieh, who died Nov. 27, 2020, of injuries suffered in a home fire in Connecticut, had an evolving interest in filmmaking near the end of his life. Shortly before his death, he leased the Utah Film Studio in Park City, Utah, where he and several friends, family members and assorted associates had relocated. Hsieh had moved his PC Studios operations to that annex, and was negotiating terms of a letter of credit for the space at the time of his death.

In November, as reported by R-J colleague Katelyn Newberg, the company that operates the studio, Quinn Capital Partners, filed a $19 million creditor’s claim against Hsieh’s estate claiming Hsieh’s company had agreed to rent the space for five years at $250,000 per month.

Hsieh also had been in contact with actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and David Arquette. As reported by the R-J’s Eli Segal, Hsieh had invested in Godron-Levitt’s HitRecord online platform, after reading Gordon-Levitt’s book “The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories.” Hsieh had an interest in Arquette’s documentary about the famed TV character Bozo the Clown.

Hsieh’s involvement in ventures of both movie stars, including the Documentary+ streaming service, led lawyers representing longtime associate Jennifer “Mimi” Pham to file notices of intent to serve subpoenas. Pham’s lawyers, David Chesnoff and Richard Schonfeld, were seeking evidence of Hsieh’s investment plans involving the two actors. Pham was also interested in the stars’ concerns for Hsieh’s “mental health and or perceived drug addiction.”

Hsieh had backed several other film projects, including “Crisis,” a nonfiction account of opioid addiction; and “Faya Daya,” a deep dive into the leaf that Sufi Muslims have chewed on for centuries during spiritual meditations.

In the “Ascension” project, the film’s title and theme was inspired by a poem written more than a century ago by Kingdon’s great-grandfather Zheng Ze. The piece explains the fall of the last Chinese empire the Qing Dynasty. Kingdon is the daughter of hedge fund manager Mark E. Kingdon and financier Anla Cheng. Her father is Jewish and her mother is Chinese.

“We think of the idea of economic progress and climbing the capitalistic ladder as a way to relieve our worries. But there’s always unforeseen consequences that we don’t realize at the top,” the director said in an interview this week with Portland, Oregon National Public Radio affiliate KRCW. “There’s the truth of income inequality, of the type of alienation that capitalism brings about, (and) pollution. But simultaneously, there is the truth of a whole new middle class that is burgeoning and has newer access to material comforts that they hadn’t had before. So the film is really trying to hold these two truths at once.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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