‘Ascent’: Film Review

Fiona Tan’s lyrical documentary ‘Ascent’ provides a meditative portrait of Japan’s iconic Mt. Fuji.

At once art installation and experimental documentary, Fiona Tan’s lyrical film about Japan’s Mt. Fuji is the sort of cinematic effort for which the word “meditation” readily applies. This non-linear portrait of the iconic mountain includes thousands of still photographs spanning many decades and incorporates references to everything from classic Japanese folk tales to the movie King Kong vs. Godzilla, in which Mt. Fuji plays a crucial supporting role. Ascent sometimes lives up to its title by proving a slog, not fully earning its feature-length running time. But the film nonetheless exerts fascination with its haunting imagery of what it informs us is still an active volcano that may well erupt again (the last time was in the 1700s). The film is receiving its U.S. theatrical premiere at NYC’s Film Forum, which is exhibiting it in a weeklong engagement presented free of charge.

The Bottom Line

Steep climbing, but worth the effort.

RELEASE DATE Jun 07, 2017

The film is not entirely without a narrative, as it contains spoken passages voiced by the director in English and Horoki Hasegawa in Japanese. They take the form of letters and diary entries in which a woman addresses a lover who died while climbing the mountain. But the storyline remains tenuous and is primarily a vehicle for social, cultural and historically themed tangents about the mountain, along with pseudo-poetic pronouncements on the order of “Photography, like grief, stops time.”

As that quote suggests, the pictures, rather than the words, are the film’s strength, and these provide ample rewards. Although some of the images are pedestrian, most are captivating. As you might expect, many feature Mt. Fuji, so many that by the end you’ll feel an intimate relationship with the volcano. But many are not of the mountain itself, including the hand-tinted souvenir photos from the dawn of photography depicting people posing in colorful costumes.

Seemingly every aspect of Mt. Fuji is exhaustively recounted here, from its role in such folk tales as The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (the inspiration for the recent animated film Tale of Princess Kaguya) to its depictions in Japanese art that apparently influenced Vincent van Gogh. Although the overload of references threatens to prove wearisome, the filmmaker has edited the imagery in such an effectively evocative manner that the viewer goes with the flow. While theatrical prospects may be necessarily limited, Ascent has certainly earned a place in the next museum show on Japan’s famous and influential icon, not to mention at the Mt. Fuji visitor center.  

Production company: Antithesis Films
Distributor: Periscoop Film
Cast: Horoki Hasegawa, Fiona Tan
Director-producer-screenwriter-director of photography: Fiona Tan
Editor: Nathalie Alonso Casale
Composer: Leon Anemaet

80 minutes