Credit: KimStim / Trance Films
by Paul Attard Featured Film Horizon Line

Wood and Water — Jonas Bak

March 23, 2022

A smoothly stitched assemblage of narrative and documentary modes, Wood and Water rides a sedate wavelength to effortless but earned poignancy.

The most endearing moments of Jonas Bak’s Wood and Water are so minuscule in scale, so insignificant in the grand scheme of things, that describing them at great length would sort of defeat the purpose; to even call most of them “moments” would be stretching the argument pretty thin. They’re brief encounters, awkward glances, reflective stares, silent meals; they don’t command your attention, they draw you to them. They’re all predicated on a general feeling of alienation that permeates the motion picture, following a nameless mother (played by the director’s mother, Anke Bak) who starts in Europe (the Black Forest mountain range in Germany), goes to Asia (Hong Kong), and ends up right where she began — both physically and emotionally isolated from the world around her. It’s established early on that this woman — who has just retired from her long-standing position as a church secretary — is widowed, lives alone, and has a few children: a daughter who dutifully visits and travels abroad with her parent; and a son who now resides in Hong Kong, one who hasn’t been home in ages, and one who’s never seen during the entirety of the film’s 80-minute runtime. Pushed by either a worrying fear for the safety of her offspring (the film was shot in 2019, during the peak of the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement’s ongoing public protests) or the slowly encroaching dread of retired life — realistically, probably a little of both — the nameless woman leaves the comfort of her homely residence and ventures to parts unknown. 

While the general outline of Wood and Water’s plot suggests some contrivance ahead (read: wacky old female foreigner gets into overseas hijinks), there’s more to the story — though, that’s a tad misleading, as there is, quite literally, not much else going on beyond what has just been laid out. So one needs to view this work less in the sense of an overarching vision, and more as a film interested in the day-to-day logistics of its straightforward scenario. Bak’s formal abilities shine brightest during these long stretches where nothing of any real note occurs; never has a condo’s restrictive interior design ever felt more oppressive than when forced to bear witness to an aged matriarch’s uncomfortable attempt to unwind in one. And while Anke isn’t exactly the most charismatic leading lady, she more or less does what the role calls for: there’s a genuine candor to the way she plods about the street, naturalistic to a degree that allows the film to operate on a sedated wavelength, one that’s almost trance-like in its lack of overt, external stimuli. The film itself is a smooth stitching of narrative and documentary modes, where the real-life events of the world serve as a haunting backdrop to the mundane lives of everyday citizens — there’s a here-and-now quality to the work that manifests not just narratively, but thematically as well — who want nothing more than to go about their lives unbothered. An underlining poignancy is easily found within this elder woman’s melancholy in the face of an ever-changing, uncaring world around her: the march of history continues forward, with or without her consent. But again, Bak understands this kind of narrativization to be an act of explicating what shouldn’t be expounded upon; trying to explain — or explain away — the crushing realities of a life by way of mere criticism.