As if cloaked by the clouds that mask the magnificent view of Japan’s highest peak on a crisp misty morning, Fiona Tan’s Ascent is a film shrouded in mystic wonder. For with its strikingly symmetrical shape and snow-capped summit, the sight of Mount Fuji is an emblem representative of an entire nation – a landmark of great cultural, religious, and geographical importance.
In Mary’s eyes, however, the mountain is a monument to the memories of her past. Through a selection of photographic pictures left by her now deceased lover Hiroshi (Hiroki Hasegawa), we embark with Mary (Tan) on a journey of understanding – her voice serving as are our guide, just as Hiroshi’s is to her. And while his letters take us on a tour of the mountain itself, from the base to the brow, her narration reflects thoughtfully upon its spiritual and secular significance, within both Japanese and wider Western society.
Mary’s monologue is one tinged with a despairing melancholy that lingers in the air. Her story is one not just of loss, but of distance and proximity. In looking at the photos left to her, she is able to be closer to Hiroshi, and in turn, we are drawn into and subsequently engulfed by the mountain’s ethereal energy.Our first glimpse of Fuji comes from afar, its dominance distinguishable in even the grainiest of landscapes – as if it were a footstep to the heavens. After we are pushed closer though, to see its majesty revealed amidst a smoggy haze, its appearance shifts, growing more akin to that of a living entity – accentuated by the formidable soundscape, and the striking score composed by Leo Anemaet and Hugo Dijkstal – that has come down and settled from above.
Known to many as a visual artist, Tan is more curator than director; using still imagery to explore the mountain from a physical, as well as a philosophical standpoint. The dense, tangential nature of the film’s ruminative construct may be distancing to some – as it was during Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s equally as experimental fishing documentary, Leviathan – the dialogue symmetrically spilt between ponders and parables. But there’s a tonal serenity here that comes from simply staring at this worldly wonder, which soulfully stirs and effortlessly enlightens.
Ascent also acts as a cinematic installation that considers the preserving power of photography, through the progression of time. In amongst the many contemporary pictures taken by tourists, we’re shown portraits from Japan’s past: Fuji’s crest forever consuming the frame. Like the images themselves, the magnetic lure of the mountain will last forever.