Thursday, March 24, 2022

Wood and Water, Adrift in HK

The last few years have been rough on Hong Kong families. First, the puppet government’s crackdown on the democracy protests kept them apart. Now, they are separated by yet another zero-tolerance Covid lockdown. Back in 2019, a German mother visited hoping to reconnect with her expat son, but she has to settle for discovering the soon-to-be beleaguered city in Jonas Bak’s Wood and Water, which opens today at MoMA.

Our main character has just retired from her church receptionist job to spend more time with her grown children. Her daughter and sister are there for her celebration, but her son Max’s flight from Hong Kong is cancelled due to the protests. Or so he claims. Frankly, his sister expected him to have an excuse to bail, which he did. The “Mother” decides the Mountain must go to Muhammad, but when she arrives in HK, he’s not there.

Instead, Mother Deutsch explores the city on her own, getting help from strangers and Max’s friendly doorman. Like all Hongkongers, she learns to navigate the protests, but she is fortunate to avoid exposure to the cops’ tear gas.

Wood and Water
is a quiet, meditative, and immersive, in ways that cut both ways. You could definitely call it slow cinema. Bak has a keen eye for visuals and he vividly captures the flavor of Hong Kong, in the twilight of its “One Country Two Systems” relative freedoms. Bak’s own mother, Anke also brings a very warm and sympathetic screen presence. Rather logically, she is convincingly maternal.

However, it is somewhat troublesome to see Bak use the 2019 protests as signpost for the film’s time and place, while having so little to say about them. The suppression of the democracy movement has ultimately led to 7.4 million Hongkongers losing their freedoms. That is about as serious as it gets. Would a film use events such as the Burning of the Reichstag as a neutral backdrop for an exploration of personal and familial alienation? Hopefully not, but what has transpired in Hong Kong approaches that sort of dire national turning point.

Regardless, Bak is quietly compelling as the unnamed mother. Frankly, Patrick Lo is so engaging as the doorman, many viewers will assume he is a veteran HK character actor, but according to IMDb, this is his first screen credit. Likewise, Ricky Yeung also adds some distinctive character as the old “social activist” she meets during her wanderings.

Bak and cinematographer Alex Grigoras make 2019 Hong Kong look arresting, but also welcomingly lived-in. Yet, it ignores the question whether that city’s days were numbered. You just cannot ignore this issue anymore. Even without such democratic-human rights concerns,
Wood and Water is so taciturn and its drama is so reserved, it could lull some viewers to sleep. Too aloof for its own good, Wood and Water isn’t really recommended when it opens today (3/24) at MoMA.