A trip to the hairdresser’s turns sour in Huda’s Salon, a gripping thriller written and directed by Hany Abu-Assad (Paradise Now). Inspired by chilling real events in Palestine, it sees young mother Reem (Maisa Abd Elhadi) drugged by Huda (Manal Awad), who strips her naked and takes compromising pictures of her with a man, who’s clearly done this before.
Huda is working with the secret service, and intends to blackmail Reem into joining her. Huda is confident that Reem’s husband won’t defend his wife’s honor, and she might well be right. While Reem goes about her daily life in a traumatized daze, trying to figure out what to do, Huda is captured by the resistance and interrogated underground.
It’s a tense, grim scenario in which you know nobody will escape unharmed. But dark humor occasionally lightens the load, and is in particularly safe hands with Awad, who’s best known in Palestine for her comedy performances. Hairdresser Huda is a complex character who plays with the audience’s assumptions and sympathies. It seems that she has ruthlessly set up other women for a fall, but her nuanced backstory is gradually revealed as she’s captured and questioned. It’s here that she also shows a cunning, seductive side. Huda is clearly smarter than her captor, but will that be enough to save her?
Huda’s Salon explores richer territory than the director’s last foray into Hollywood, The Mountain Between Us. This is a story of complex women in a patriarchal society, weaponized by men to betray each other and their countries. “I chose girls whose husbands were assholes,” says Huda matter of factly, and it appears she had plenty of choice. It’s also a portrait of a world in which blackmail has been facilitated by social media. “People publish their own scandals,” she says, explaining that she was paid less when Facebook arrived on the scene.
The desperation of the women to conceal their nude photographs requires cultural context, and Abu-Assad does a decent job of establishing just how devastating these could be in contemporary Palestine. Clutching her young baby, Reem also offers a parallel with Bethlehem’s Biblical mother: her story about being drugged and stripped by her hairdresser seems about as likely to be believed as the one about an immaculate conception.
Despite the use of traditional thriller trappings, Huda’s Salon feels more raw than slick. The choice to film each scene in one take aids tension, but it doesn’t always invite intimacy with the characters. And the sudden ending leaves questions unanswered. But it’s still a tense and culturally fascinating watch about women battling an impossible situation.