Caught a screening of a documentary called Ascent at Film Forum. Honestly, the description on the website didn’t quite convince me that it would be my cup of tea, but tickets were selling at the unbeatable price of $0.00, so I decided to give it a shot. I’m glad I did: Fiona Tan’s self-described “photo film” is a fascinating meditation on life, death, nostalgia, transience, permanence, and hope, utilizing the iconography of Mt. Fuji as its central symbol.
The still images that comprise the movie’s visuals show the mountain from a variety of angles and vantage points: from bustling city streets and quiet nature trails, through the windows of hotel rooms and airplanes; sometimes, it fills the frame entirely, but just as often, it is a mere background detail or prop utilized to better balance the composition. The narration, meanwhile, examines the myriad roles Fuji has played in Japan’s history and culture. For centuries, pilgrims have climbed to its summit to demonstrate their piety and/or determination. At the height of World War II, the military used it as a propaganda tool to rally the country’s fighting spirit. Its aesthetic beauty has inspired countless artists, from the legendary painter Hokusai to the producers of King Kong vs. Godzilla. Tan herself eventually reaches the conclusion that the volcano is simply an impartial observer, immutable and unchanging even as the landscape and society in its shadow transform over time—an interpretation that brings her pain and comfort in equal measure.
Ascent is the kind of cinematic essay that doesn’t receive nearly enough attention these days. Hopefully, Film Forum’s free admission will help attract the wider audience it deserves.
[Originally written June 10, 2017.]