TIFF: The filmmaker seems eager to turn “Huda’s Salon” into a more tense outlet. But what tension can there ever be when you already know how this is all going to end?
It begins, as so many horrible things do, without even a glimmer of terror to come. The young wife and mother Reem (Masa Abd Elhadi) stopped by the salon of her friend Huda (Manal Awad) to have her hair done, maybe even cut. The two easily chat about all kinds of things, from Facebook issues to the latest drama with a neighborhood nemesis. Reem’s lovely baby Lina bustles about nearby, she mentions problems with her suspicious husband, and Huda brews him a cup of coffee to enjoy while making himself a cup. Everything is fine, even heartwarming, but that’s before Huda slips something into Reem’s coffee mug, who doesn’t notice a bitter taste until long after starting to sink into unconsciousness.
No, not everything is as it looks in Huda’s living room, and while this makes for a fascinating start to Hany Abu-Assad’s latest drama in Bethlehem, it ultimately results in a less than satisfying turn for the film, also named for the seemingly safe neighborhood spot. After Reem succumbs to whatever Huda mixed her drink with, the salon owner embarks on a routine she has done several times before, with spooky results. “Huda’s Lounge” doesn’t waste a second in its crackling first 10 minutes, going from easy chatter to absolutely horrific drama without missing a turn, but that rat-a-tat-tat opening ends up giving way to a drama that is uncomfortable both because of its subject matter and its weak grip on it.
Abu-Assad opens the film with a series of titles that outline the political and social state of Israel and Palestine – two-time Oscar nominee Abu-Assad is Palestinian and probably anxious to unravel the A conflict that has been going on for decades in the simplest terms for a large audience – which introduces us to the two main forces at play: the Israeli secret service and the Palestinian resistance. At some point in her complicated life, Huda ran into the Secret Service (maybe?), Who she said blackmailed her into working for them (again, maybe?) ). Part of the concert: blackmailing other young women, women like Huda, so that they also work for the state.
Reem is only his latest victim. Like the full horror of what Huda – who would later claim that she chose her victims because she wanted to help them in her own way, another confession from Huda that might as well be a selfish lie – did to Reem himself made clear in the opening moments of the film, “Huda’s Living Room” meets its first major roadblock: there doesn’t seem to be a way out. And while that sets an interesting tone for the film – all the futility of war, in a messy little package – Abu-Assad seems eager to turn “Huda’s Living Room” into a more tense release. But what tension can there ever be when you already know how this is all going to end? That’s a different question, and while intriguing in itself, doesn’t seem like one that the film is easily interested in engaging with.
Abu-Assad, who also wrote the film, does his best to create tension and dread wherever he can: swing between a terrified Reem and the soon-captured Huda, both racing against a clock that only turns to the inevitable. Reem, rightly convinced that her life is fundamentally over through no fault of her own, scrambles to save herself, her mercurial husband, and their baby. As she speeds through her neighborhood, clamors around her increasingly claustrophobic house, hugs her child, argues with her husband, picks up and puts down her phone (maybe, like Huda l ‘suggested after blackmailing Reem, she might want to call him contact Musa with insider information?), the pieces are in place for a biting outing – the constant presence of the innocent baby alone should frighten the audience – but it never sticks.
Across town, in a drab underground space, Huda cycles through his own gruesome situation. The Resistance, long interested in everything that goes on in her living room, finally captured her, and the steel-eyed henchman Hasan (the highly talented Ali Suliman, here supposed to provide deep character work alongside cheap tics like a constant need to keep your eye out) wants to know what’s wrong with all those compromising photos of young women that Huda tried to hide. Poor communication, misguidance, and old human fallibility reign supreme during their interactions, which end up becoming, well, rather friendly?
Abu-Assad is, at least, not keen on turning anyone into a black-and-white villain here – except maybe Huda, whom Awad plays with a creepy reserve that mostly works, especially when she delivers. lines that we really don’t know whether we should believe or not – and seem constrained by the reality that both sides have their own points to make. But it’s a weird thing to attempt in a movie like “Huda’s Living Room,” which also absolutely talks about the cost of war for people, like Reem and baby Lina, who have done nothing but go. to exist in this difficult time, this terrible place. There’s no way out, but while “Huda’s Salon” ends with an overly thoughtful ending that hardly reflects the precise stories and people it’s trying to tell, you can’t help but wonder: what is all this for?
Rating: C +
“Huda’s Living Room” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. IFC Films will release it at a later date.