Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun May 02, 2021 7:57 pm 
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A quiet visit to Hong Kong

Jonas Bak is a free lance photographer whose debut feature stars his mother, Anke Bak. Is this therapy, a way to reconnect? He himself lived some time in Hong Kong, location of most of the film, with his lawyer wife, unable to work in the film industry because he knew no Chinese. (He lived longer in Scotland, but that's not very far from Germany.) This is about an older woman's solitary journey to a faraway place to be briefly closer to her estranged son. The film doesn't particularly go anywhere, but it has a meditative quality. It may show how sometimes getting away can really be getting away. It's a bold journey for a reserved woman of a certain age, even if nothing much happens.

As the film begins, the mother's character retires at 60 from years of working in the office of a church in rural Germany. Her semi-estranged son (in the film) has been for years in Hong Kong and she hardly ever sees him. He can't come for a family celebration scheduled for now so she decides to go to Hong Kong to see him. They chat on the phone and he says this will work. He arranges for her to stay at his apartment there, but he's never around that we ever see; she is left on her own. She is a quiet, placid soul, so she handles this pretty well. The apartment at least has big windows with rather spectacular views. As to the result, Bak has alluded to "slow cinema."

She is lucky in having pleasant encounters, though nothing dramatic or exciting, despite the fact that the Hong Kong protests of 2019-20 are in full swing. One day she can see a long parade of demonstrators from the window. The first day, she can't get in at the late hour when she arrives at her son's apartment building and she has to stay at a hostel-like place in a bedroom shared with a young woman. However the young woman is chatty and tells her briefly her "story." Later, the (as promised) friendly building receptionist accompanies her to lunch at a friend's restaurant, and another day, lets her come to the park to do tai chi with him. By chance she goes by herself to a fortune teller. An elementary school classmate, a retired art teacher, is there and can translate for her.

The essence of her fortune is that her element is water. This means she is noble and respected by many people, but her children will leave her, and she needs wood, and must live near it. This rings true for her, obviously, for the children leaving, and she happens to live on the edge of the Black Forest, near wood. That night, she dreams of a forest. Another day she goes to a therapist her son has seen, following a paper she found lying around, and learns he has been diagnosed with anxiety depression and is taking medications for that.

Bak spends no time getting from here to there or back again. He has evidently saved only the parts of his 16mm shooting that he liked. In an interview with a Berlinale organizer he has explained that the film is different from what he had planned, that his mother said that she would never do things in the script, so he scrapped them. He said he now hopes to make this the first part of a trilogy, the next two being about the son, though the mother will have to make an appearance. He doesn't know if his mother will oblige. One wonders who he'll cast as the son, and if the storyline will get closer to his own life, or diverge more.

As Beatrice Loayza says in her generally favorable comment on this film in her New York Times 2021 ND/NF preview , Bak avoids a "white woman finding herself in a foreign land" trajectory, partly because of the pull of the omnipresent (but avoided) demonstrations; I'd say also because of Anke Bak's evident placidity and good nature. She seems to know who she is, though she has no need to tell anybody. She tells the therapist her husband and her son's father died when her son was seven, and this may have traumatized him. Her, pehaps not so much? But the self discovery trajectory surely isn't entirely avoided. The fortune teller must provide food for thought, and the visit with the son's therapist too. Surely there is some "finding herself" in these two encounters.

But many questions are left unanswered and even unasked, and as Beatrice Loayza also says, not much happens. This is a genre of "gentle" festival film that provides background for viewer mediations, the gathering of a peaceful mood. At the heart of this mood is Anke Bak. In seeming to listen to her nature, and even delve deeper through the medium of the Chinese fortune teller, Bak may have provided through fiction what he was originally planning to provide in record, non-fiction form.

Wood and Water, 79 mins., was screened at home for this review on the occasion of its debut in the MoMA/Film at Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films (Apr. 28-May 8, 2021). It will be presented at the Berlinale in June.

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