Wood and Water

Directed by: Jonas Bak
Distributed by: Kimstim

Written by Michael Clawson

An austere, ruminative, and remarkably accomplished first feature from Jonas Bak, “Wood and Water” is a portrait of a woman stepping into a new stage of life. It’s also an enthralling meditation on solitude, change, travel, and memory. Its pace is serene, its imagery breathtaking.

After Anke, played by the director’s real mother, retires from her job at a church in Germany’s Black Forest, she takes a holiday to the coast to visit with her grown children. Her son, however, can’t attend. He lives in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protests have made him unable to travel. So after spending time with her other children, Anke decides to visit Hong Kong, despite the fact that for the first several days of her planned trip, her son will be preoccupied with work and unable to see her.

It’s well before Anke’s departure for Hong Kong that Bak’s originality and talent as a stylist is clear. Anke’s time on Germany’s coast is a period of reflection: staying near the house where she once lived with her children and her late husband, she fondly remembers days spent on the beach as a family. As she sifts through her memories, Bak fills the screen with beautifully textured still photographs of a mother and her children – presumably Bak himself, his siblings, and his mother from many years ago. Where exactly the distinction between fact and fiction lies in “Wood and Water” is intriguingly hard to pin down.

Once Anke arrives in Hong Kong, she doesn’t exactly form relationships with the few people she meets, but the brief interactions she has with others register as deeply meaningful. After a stunningly abstract driving sequence that marks her journey from Germany to Hong Kong, Anke comes to the door of her son’s apartment and finds she can’t get in. She stays in a hostel for a night instead, where a late-night conversation with another woman plays out in whispers that left me hanging on every word. Anke also connects with the doorman in her son’s apartment building, as well as a translator who she meets when she visits a fortune teller.

Bak’s visual grammar involves a mixture of static compositions and purposeful camera movement, which he uses to study how Anke moves through and occupies the film’s two very different settings. As we observe Anke across the film’s two halves, the forbidding angles of Hong Kong’s modern architecture and its clamorous streets are exquisitely contrasted with the lush woods and quiet of Anke’s German village. An especially beautiful moment comes when the camera drifts along a Hong Kong street and gazes up at the towering skyscrapers, which softly glow in the light from neon signage. The buildings appear otherworldly as they pass by, and mesmerizingly so. But no matter what space or sonic atmosphere Anke finds herself in, Bak watches through a calm, patient lens that lulls you in completely.

“Wood and Water” Trailer

Michael Clawson is a member of the Seattle Film Critic Society you can follow his passion for film on Letterboxd.

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