Film Review: Ascent

Experimental "photo-film" weds 4,000 still photographs of Mt. Fuji to voiceover musings about art and history.
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Screening for a week free of charge at New York’s Film Forum, the Mongrel International release Ascent explores boundaries between photography and motion pictures, art and history, transience and permanence, using Japan's Mt. Fuji as a focal point.

Writer-director Fiona Tan assembled some 4,500 still photographs of Mt. Fuji—color postcards, stereographs, motion picture stills, amateur snapshots, nature and scientific photography—and edited them to a soundtrack of music and narration. At times the stills are grouped by theme or color, fruit or birds, for example. At times they are cut to simulate action of some sort, like climbing the mountain. At other points the montage feels random, with view succeeding view in a blur.

Similarly, the voiceover at times mirrors the edits, as when "Mary" (a character voiced by Tan) recites a checklist of mountaineering items to the beat of different Fuji views. The narration is sometimes set in opposition to the visuals, or provides ironic commentary. Tan also offers audio clips of Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad, the New Wave film that addressed Europe's troubled history with Japan.

Voiced by Japanese actor Hiroki Hasegawa, a second character named "Hiroshi" describes an attempt to scale Fuji at night in order to observe sunrise from the summit.

The narration includes some history, a folk tale or two, and discussions about Van Gogh, woodblock artist Hokusai, Leni Riefenstahl, King Kong vs. Godzilla and Baltasar Kormákur's Everest. The characters cite epigrams from philosophers, talk about the impact of religion on society, and recall past disasters like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

Tan, a Dutch artist who works in several media, understands this material better than casual viewers. Her narration veers between oblique and pretentious, sometimes landing squarely on both. She delivers statements like "I shiver with dismay at the injustices and atrocities that humans willingly inflict on one another, supposedly in the name of religion" in an affectless monotone that reduces Fuji to a backdrop.

Ascent doesn't examine convincingly Mt. Fuji's cultural importance to the Japanese. By most accounts it's not an especially difficult mountain to climb. Unfortunately, that leaves the bulk of the movie dealing with pronouncements like "Times change, but the mountain never forgets. A silent eye which never blinks."

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