In her overview of this year’s New Directors/New Films for the New York Times,Beatrice Loayza notes that she was “especially taken” by Jonas Bak’s debut feature, Wood and Water.Amy Taubin had seen “about half” of the twenty-seven features in the program when she wrote her survey of the series for Artforum last week, “but I can recommend only four of them to you.” Wood and Water is one of the four.
Shooting on 16 mm, Bak and cinematographer Alex Grigoras frame a succession of quietly assured compositions to introduce Anke, a widow on the verge of retiring from her job as a church secretary in a small town in Germany’s Black Forest. Anke arranges to have her three children join her at the family’s old vacation home on the Baltic coast, and while she reminisces with her two daughters, a message arrives from her son, who has been living in Hong Kong for the past few years. Protests against China’s imposition of national security laws have made it impossible for him to leave the city.
Anke decides that if he can’t—or won’t—come to see her, she’ll go to him. The nearly abstract transition from Germany to Hong Kong, underscored by a soundtrack from Brian Eno, has to be one of the most beautifully accomplished sequences of the year so far. When Anke arrives, her son is gone, presumably on some sort of business trip, and she’s left to navigate the city on her own. “It’s not a terribly eventful movie,” writes Loayza, “despite the backdrop of massive protests; perhaps that’s why it so successfully avoids the cliché of the white woman ‘finding’ herself in a foreign land. Instead, it’s in the brief encounters, the small talk, and the unspoken hurt that our heroine comes to life.”
There’s an open and honest but never pushy or desperate curiosity in Anke that people respond to, and “her unfussy manner and the clarity of mind she projects are some of the film’s assets,” writes Taubin. “The other is Bak’s decision to shoot on celluloid. The images, the forest—the natural world where the film begins and ends—and the thronged, high-rise-lined, neon-lit Hong Kong streets, have a richness and presence—should I say reality?—that many of the festival’s other travelogue-shaped films lack.”
As Glenn Heath Jr. mentions at the Film Stage, Bak has spoken of drawing inspiration from Chantal Akerman, and in particular, News from Home (1976), and there are clear formal nods to Yasujiro Ozu. “Consistently rigorous compositions, including pillow shot upward glances at Hong Kong’s architecture, accordingly incorporate the marching demonstrators with equal discipline,” writes Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov. “This doesn’t seem like inappropriate aestheticization but instead the respectful integration of an urgent reality a well-meaning tourist who’s still a tourist can only take in to a certain extent.” Wood and Water is streaming through Thursday and will screen once more at the Walter Reade Theater on May 13.
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