In Jonas Bak’s Wood and Water, we are plunged into a woman’s solitude and loneliness—even in one of the most vibrant cities in the world. The film is not really built around plot, but rather the emotional journey of seeking a connection.
Anke (played by the director’s mother Anke Bak) has just retired from a job in a church office in the Black Forest. She is hoping to connect with her adult children. She goes on a holiday to the sea with her daughters and their families, but her son Max is unable to come. He has been in Hong Kong for the last three years, and because of ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations, cannot come home. So Anke takes a trip to Hong Kong hoping to visit him.
Her son is away when she arrives, but she is able to use his apartment, From there she travels around Hong Kong and makes brief connections with people there—a young woman in a shared hotel room, the doorman at Max’s apartment, a fortune teller (who gives the context of the film’s title).
What is striking in all this wandering is just how empty everything is. Max’s apartment, though nicely furnished, is empty with no other person in it. The streets and shopping areas seem fairly empty as she walks around. Even when we see the demonstrations taking place, we are always at a distance and separated from the crowd.
All this creates an emotive experience of the emptiness of Anke’s life as she enters her life of retirement. She grieves her past. She grieves the loss of job, which may have given her life meaning. And she grieves her son, who although not dead, is absent in her life.
In production notes, the director tells us, “The idea for the film is loosely based on the biblical story of the prodigal son.” In that parable, it is the father’s longing for his son that drives the resolution. That same sense of longing is what we see Anke dealing with in a world that is empty (even in a crowded city) without that connection to her son. She does find some connections, but they are no substitute for the mother-son bond that is missing from her life.
The director also writes about his own discovery of the emptiness that happens when children go off into the world, as he did, leaving his mother with a sense of longing. It serves as a reminder to us all that the bonds of love, especially within families, are not easily broken. Rather they tend to exist even when distance separates us. It’s worth noting that in that parable, it is said that “while he was far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion”. Whether near or far the compassion and love we share is what gives us meaning.
Wood and Water is in select theaters.
Photos courtesy of KimStim.