Review: Wondrous ‘Wood and Water’ searches for strands of home in unexpected places

A woman and a man share a meal at an outdoor cafe in the movie "Wood and Water."
Anke Bak, left, and Patrick Lo in the movie “Wood and Water.”
(KimStim / Trance Films)

In Jonas Bak’s exquisitely crafted first feature, “Wood and Water,” a widowed German mom’s retirement from her church job and feelings of loneliness spur a trip to visit a faraway son in Hong Kong, which also becomes a way for her new self to reckon memories and loss with an uncertain future.

The delineated settings, captured with the intimate grain of 16 mm, couldn’t be more unalike in energy: the verdant serenity of a Black Forest village and the neon-and-steel bustle of a city-state in the grip of historic protests. Bak visually connects these two atmospheres in a patiently virtuosic long take pointed upward from a moving vehicle as fleeting treetops on the edge of the frame segue into the darkness and pulsating fluorescence of a tunnel, after which we emerge into what feels like a flower bed of high-rises. The collapsed distance is disorienting but also strangely wondrous.

For your safety

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the CDC and local health officials.

Bak cast his own mother, Anke Bak, as his traveling protagonist, and she’s a singularly authentic presence, whether alone with her thoughts looking out a window or engaging with strangers in an unfamiliar metropolis: a young roaming Australian, a helpful doorman, a fortune teller’s translating friend. The son isn’t around, save the one behind the camera, a curious and affecting blend of narratively externalized guilt and filmmaking devotion that only deepens as the reality of her situation sinks in.


Juxtaposing nature’s comforting placidity and an urban mélange in which freedom is always in flux, “Wood and Water” breathes with unforced majesty about what’s sad and beautiful in moments of great change — story, mood and near-documentary-like observation are in a wonderful harmony here. In the abiding stillness of its shots and pacing is a sense of life as it’s lived and, hopefully, appreciated. It makes for a remarkable debut feature in that respect, since this could easily be a more veteran artist’s summing up about time spent searching for strands of home in places old and new.

'Wood and Water'

In German, English and Cantonese with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 19 minutes

Playing: Starts April 15, Lumiere Music Hall, Beverly Hills