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FilmWatch Weekly: From Finland to Palestine: ‘Compartment No. 6’ and ‘Huda’s Salon’

Two foreign-film winners: Archaeology and understanding on a Russian train; moral complexity in the Palestinian West Bank.


Yuriy Borisov and Seidi Haarla in “Compartment No. 6.”

Although there won’t be a Portland International Film Festival in 2022, opportunities to sample worthy foreign fare remain, including a pair of imports opening this weekend, one about an unlikely human connection, the other about the sundering of social bonds.

In Compartment No. 6, a Finnish archeology student named Laura (Seidi Haarla) studying in Russia embarks on a train journey from Moscow to Murmansk in order to visit a set of ancient petroglyphs. She’s making the trip without her girlfriend, for reasons that seem to have something to do with an emotional distance between them. Her compartment-mate is Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), a gruff, vodka-soaked Russian miner, who initially assumes she’s a prostitute—why else would a woman travel alone on the train?

From this inauspicious beginning, a gradual understanding develops between Laura and Ljoha, especially during an overnight stop in Petrozavodsk when they venture to the home of a scene-stealing babushka who regales Laura with theories about population counts and offers homemade vodka. Vodka is a recurring motif.

Other incidents and passengers come and go, most amusingly an insufferable Finnish acoustic-guitar wielder who provides a flimsy counterpart to Lhoja’s terse but genuine nihilism. Haarla, a well-known TV star in Finland, gives an impressive performance as the tentative, tolerant Laura, matched by Borisov’s taciturn but tender Lhoja.

This is the second feature by Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen, after 2016’s The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, and he demonstrates subtle command of pace, setting, and tone: What reads on paper like yet another meet-cute story acquires depth and nuance, especially after the action moves to Murmansk itself, and Laura’s travel goals appear frustratingly out of reach.

Train stories are always a good vehicle, pun intended, for getting characters who otherwise wouldn’t ever meet into a confined space together for a long period of time. It works like a charm here. Compartment No. 6 was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Golden Globe, and made the Oscar shortlist. Although it works as a dual character study, it’s also an effective metaphor for the ways national stereotypes can be undermined when we actually get to know our fellow travelers. (Opens Friday, March 11, at Cinema 21).


Ali Suliman and Manal Awad in “Huda’s Salon.”

AS MUCH AS ENFORCED PROXIMITY can lead to mutual respect and understanding, enforced division can yield mistrust and desperation. Huda’s Salon is set in a place where those things run rampant: the Palestinian West Bank, particularly Bethlehem, where Huda (Manal Awad) has her salon.

In a masterful, ten-minute-long opening shot, Huda prepares to cut the hair of Reem (Maisa Abd Elhadi), slips her a drugged cup of coffee, hauls her unconscious form to a back room, strips her naked, and takes Polaroids of her in a compromising position. It turns out that Huda works for the Israeli Secret Service, and makes a habit of blackmailing those clients of hers that she knows have especially jealous husbands into working for the Israelis.

It’s obviously an abhorrent thing to do, and Reem is terrified at her predicament. If her husband sees the photos, he’ll divorce her (at the very least), and if her neighbors find out she’s working for the enemy, she’ll likely be killed. Things go from bad to worse when Huda’s salon is raided by the Israelis and she’s taken into custody.

From there, the film bifurcates: Reem desperately tries to keep her predicament a secret from her husband while trying to figure out a way to escape with her infant daughter, while Huda is interrogated by an agent named Hasan (Ali Suliman). Although Reem’s plight is tense, and Elhadi is convincingly unmoored, the scenes between Huda and Hasan are the film’s highlights. Each is revealed to be a more complex, and more sympathetic character, than might seem at first glance, spotlighting the terrible moral compromises that get made in desperate times.

Director Hany Abu-Assad has been nominated twice before for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, for 2006’s Paradise Now and 2013’s Omar. As in those films, Abu-Assad here crafts a suspenseful, efficient, and sometime brutal thriller against the backdrop of political oppression, intrigue, and occupation. (Opens Friday, March 11, at the Living Room Theaters)

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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