Wood and Water review – slender but powerful tale of a mother in search of her son | Film

Jonas Bak’s short debut feature, about a retired German mother who follows her son to Hong Kong, lingers at the checkpoint between fiction and documentary. Powerfully composed and comprised largely of characters monologuing over illustrative shots, it has the contemplative authority of non-fiction. But it is, nonetheless, still fiction, one that sets its slender story against a backdrop of fleeting time at first intimately evoked but which grows into something epic and almost sublime.

The widowed mother (Anke Bak, the director’s own parent), pixie-cutted and subdued, takes family members, including her daughter (Theresa Bak), to her old house on the Baltic sea. There, the past is as visible as the marine horizon, but unreachable; one absentee is her son, Max, who has been working in Hong Kong. Newly retired from her job in a church, the mother decides to head east to join him – only it turns out he is away on a business trip and reluctant to return while the city is in turmoil because of the Umbrella protests. So she is left to fend for herself.

Bak announces his mother’s entry into the metropolis with a truly magnificent, upwards-peering long shot of neon-washed edifices. Filming in 2019 while the protest movement was in full swing, he also includes vertical panoramas in which history seems to be filing down the boulevards. But a series of chance encounters – a too-tired-to-sleep hostelmate (Alexandra Batten), Max’s affable doorman (Patrick Lo), an art teacher turned activist (Ricky Yeung) also missing his child – emphasise the fragility and the persistence of individual lives in the face of larger forces.

A fortune teller (Edward Chan) tips her off that water is her element, but she must live close to a forest to compensate for the missing solidity in her life: her children. She often stares into space out of her phantom son’s apartment window; the immensity of life seems ready to swallow her up. Etched carefully by Bak’s minimalism and naturalism, both a cool philosophical detachment and a generosity of spirit are in fruitful opposition here.

Wood and Water is released on 28 September on Mubi.

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