Wood and Water is the debut feature from German writer and director Jonas Bak, with a slow but moving soundtrack by Brian Eno. It tells the story of Anke (Anke Bak), a recently retired woman living in rural Germany who calls all of her children home to come and celebrate the beginning of this new chapter in her life. At the last minute her son Max, who lives in Hong Kong and hasn’t visited in three years, cancels, saying he’s stuck there due to the pro-democracy protests.
Eventually, bored with all of her newfound free time, Anke decides to go to Hong Kong amidst the protests in an attempt to visit her son. Wood and Water follows her journey, as she abandons the familiar world of her domestic life in Germany’s Black Forest region for the new perspectives she finds in Hong Kong.
You might expect a film set during a series of heated political protests would be high intensity. Wood and Water is nothing like that. It can be best described as mellow, both in pacing and in plot.
During her time in Hong Kong Anke meets a series of characters, from two young Australian travellers on their last night in the city to an elderly Chinese fortune teller, forging a particularly close connection with the security of guard of Max’s building, where she resides during her stay despite his unexpected absence (we never meet him).
Most of the time this leisurely pacing is a real strength, but there are points during the film’s 85 minute running time when alongside the lack of plot, the minimal screenplay and the very low-key acting, it can start to feel dull and stagnant. Though it’s already a short film, there are times when the camera lingers on a still shot for a second or two too long.
Still, the film looks beautiful and deals well with ideas of ageing and intercultural relationships, though less thoroughly or effectively with themes such as motherhood and politics, which feels like a missed opportunity. At times Bak’s execution is lacking - some moments feel insubstantial, and despite many beautiful scenes, sometimes the film moves so slowly it begins to feel monotonous. Ultimately, this is a character observation, and as such a moving portrait of a woman learning about herself late in life.
Wood and Water was at the BFI London Film Festival 2021. woodandwater.de