A powerful, tense and absorbing drama, Hany Abu-Assad’s striking Huda’s Salon begins with a slice of engaging domestic drama before turning things upside down and heading off into striking political thriller territory (based on real events) juggling the situation facing Palestinian women living with Israeli occupation and also dealing with patriarchal pressures within their own communities.
A bold and provocative film that works both as a gripping thriller and a commentary on issues faced by women, Huda’s Salon is shrewdly structured and directed by Abu-Assad - whose last film was the Kate Winslet and Idris Elba drama The Mountain Between Us - and sees him back with a film that is nearer in tone to his Oscar-nominated features Paradise Now and Omar.
The film opens in engaging style as Bethlehem hairdresser Huda (Manal Awad) stands over her client, Reem (Maisa Abd Elhadi) and sets about shampooing her hair. They talk about the state of the world, with the chat becoming personal and warm-hearted as Reem admits that she’d like to open her own salon one day when her baby is older, despite the fact that her husband, Yousef (Jalal Masarwa) would prefer that she stay home.
But with the pair still chatting, Huda quietly drugs Reem’s coffee and, in a shocking twist, she and a hired model (Samer Bisharat) drag the unconscious mother to a room in the back of the shop, strip her, while Huda proceeds to take pictures of Reem and the model naked in a bed, suggesting sexual contact. When she wakes, Huda says Reem must spy for the Israeli occupation forces’ secret service or Huda will show the pictures to Reem’s jealous husband and family.
While a shocked and deeply worried Reem tries to understand what has happened to her, the film takes another twist. It turn out the salon is being watched by the resistance, who kidnap Huda and take her for interrogation by Hassan (Ali Suliman, who also featured in Paradise Now). The interrogation veers through beliefs, politics and experiences with things never quite as clear as first appearances might suggest.
The film balances the twin storylines, but astutely with the women dominating the themes involved as moral and political quandaries. Both Manal Awad and Maisa Abd Elhadi are excellent and deliver real depth and complexity to their characters, with Hany Abu-Assad constructing a memorable, thoughtful and often genuinely exciting film that astutely balances drama with thrills. The film, which premiered at Toronto, is set for its US release on March 4.
Palestine-Egypt-Netherlands-Qatar, 2021, 91mins
Dir/scr: Hany Abu-Assad
Production: H&A Production
International sales: Memento Films
Producers: Hany Abu-Assad, Amir Diab, Mohamed Hefzy
Cinematography: Ehab Assal, Peter Flinckenberg
Editor: Eyas Salman
Music: Jeffrey Van Rossum
With: Ali Suliman, Maisa Abd Elhadi, Manal Awad, Omar Abu Amer, Kamel El Basha, Jalal Masarwa