Hany Abu Assad’s return to Palestinian dramas is a mixed bag of didactic storytelling and expertly delivered thrills. A feminist thriller that is both well-meaning and misguided.
A new Hany Abu Assad film is always a reason to celebrate and Huda’s Salon brings special excitement for those following his recent filmography: after the Oscar-nominated Omar, the director’s output has been much less exciting. The English-language The Mountain Between Us showed the director out of his comfort zone to mixed results, and the Palestine-set The Idol was more of a commercial outing that was a waste to Abu Assad’s impeccable storytelling skills. Here with Huda’s Salon, he is back to arthouse, complex dramas that tackle issues of identity in present-day Palestine combined with a look at the status of women in Palestine, an issue that seems new to Abu Assad whose previous films were less interested in gender roles and mostly followed male protagonists.
The result is a film that feels like it’s two movies in one: a collision of intent and execution, an effective thriller bogged down by a need to deliver social commentary in a way that simply makes this a didactic effort rather than a seamless weaving of both thrills and social observation.
Reem (Maisa Abd Elhadi) is a Palestinian woman who, on the surface, seems to lead a normal life. A mother of a newly born, her marriage is an unhappy one and communication with her oppressive husband always leads to futile results. When she visits her hairdresser, Huda (Manal Awad), one day hoping for a new haircut that may just change her moods, things soon spiral out of control and change Reem’s life forever.
Abu Assad is a master of tone. His films, particularly Omar, know how to grab viewers’ attention and never let go until the final shot. And that’s exactly the problem with Huda’s Salon. The film constantly cuts between two main storyline that constitute the entire plot. On one side, we follow Reem’s life being shattered due to the incident in Huda’s salon that theatrens her own existence. Meanwhile, we follow a long, poorly written interrogation between a freedom fighter and Huda who is being questioned for what she’s done to Reem and several other girls. The result is a deeply engaging half, Reem’s, and an oddly distant half, Huda’s, that runs out of gas, and risks turning off audience’s interest, turning the film into a collision of tones and an inconsistent experience where thrills often get halted by talky, didactic sequences.
In casting look-alike actresses, Maisa Abdel Elhadi and Manal Awad, Abu Assad attempts to draw parallels between their stories and the choices they get to make – and are obstructed from making, both due to social and political restraints. But the film only becomes alive when we follow Reem’s story, with all its suspense and thrills, only to then be stalled by long sequences of interrogation with Huda, full of text-book, ideological dialogue that seems cut from political speeches rather than organically fitting with a story that does have a great premise but doesn’t know to deliver on it. And as the running time goes by, it is clear that Abu Assad’s intent on making this a feminist thriller with a political backdrop becomes on the expense of story – an issue that wasn’t existent in his previous, more successful outings. A quick, and extremely convenient ending to the storyline, following a set of well executed sequences of suspense, doesn’t help either.
The film’s main asset remains the performance from Maisa Abd Elhadi who delivers a fearless performance as Reem whose misery and agony are genuinely felt. Her turn is particularly brave as Arab actresses who deliver nude scenes are often shamed in the Arab world, so it’s refreshing to see her complete investment in the role regardless of potential troubles at home when the film gets widely seen.
Technical credits are also problematic: the film suffers two major audio issues that may take viewers out of the story due to their recurrence throughout: close to 30% of the film’s Arabic-language dialogue has been re-dubbed, and possible re-written in post-production, as it doesn’t match the characters’ lip movement. Arab viewers will particularly take note of that. The sound editing is also an issue: dialogue is often heard at various pitches and levels of clarity. In a thriller where all audio and visual elements should come together to deliver an edge-of-your-set experience, Huda’s Salon’s audio drawbacks impact the overall experience.
Bottom line: A far cry from his Palestine-set efforts such as Paradise Now and Omar, Huda’s Salon is a hit and miss experience that feels like it needed more time in the writers’ room. While not completely successful, it still delivers on the suspense and thrills – but you can’t shake off the feeling of disappointment when the lights go back on.
This review is from the Toronto International Film Festival. IFC Films will release Huda’s Salon in the U.S. at a date to be announced.