Red Sea opener is an ambitious fantasy epic set in contemporary Jeddah
Dir/scr: Yasir Alyasiri. Saudi Arabaia/UAE. 2023. 126 mins
HWJN could give Hollywood blockbusters a run for their money. Yasir Aliyasiri’s adaptation of the bestselling YA novel by Ibraheem Abbas is an entertaining, swashbuckling fantasy epic complete with dashing young hero, diabolical villains and a sweet romance that bridges the gap between two worlds. It may be plot-heavy but it has enough energy and exuberance to make an impression domestically and potentially claim a tasty slice of the global fantasy market. AGC acquired international rights immediately prior to the film’s world premiere as opening film at Red Sea.
Has enough energy and exuberance to make an impression
There are strong echoes of Star Wars, among others, throughout HJWN – but rather then being set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, it takes place in contemporary Jeddah. Humans and djinns (invisible creatures) share the planet. A wry voice-over from djinn Hajwan (Baraa Alem) explains that his kind are invisible to the human eye and nothing like people imagine. “I wish I could tell humans we don’t have goat legs. We look a lot like them,” he explains.
Hajwan is, in fact, a dashing, mild-mannered medic who lives at home with his djinn mother and grandfather. He has little notion of who his father was, his true destiny or the part he will play in the return of the “chosen one” which seems to give him quite an affinity with young Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter. And, in many respects this feels like a superhero origins story. A considerable amount of voice-over sets the scene of how humans and djinns were separated and about the ground rules that govern their co-existence. At 92, Hajwan is a mere whippersnapper in the world of the djinns. The only power he seems to have is an ability to teleport at speed.
There is a lot of exposition in HWJN, and there are times when it feels as if the film has stopped dead to share it all. Generally, Aliyasiri maintains a fast pace and smooth flow between the disparate elements. The film is polished and looks impressive with a pleasingly low-tech feel to a lot of the effects and action, which mostly consists of mild fisticuffs, jumping and some determined running at speed.
Hajwan’s life starts to change when a human family claim his home and he finds himself able to communicate with the beautiful medical student Sawsan (Nour Alkhadra). They manage this by using a ouija board and by constant recourse to an iPad. The couple’s innocent romance blossoms and the film’s light humour is evident in their scenes together, including a moment when they watch Ghost (1990) – another instance of a supernatural romance happening in two worlds.
There is a good deal more to the plot, including wicked cousin Xanaam (Naif Aldaferi) from the world of the djinns and his dastardly plan to ensure that Hajwan marries his other cousin Jumara (Alanoud Saud) and fathers a child who will signal the return of the ‘chosen one’. Inevitably, Sawsan becomes the innocent victim in the crossfire of warring tribes and the plans for world domination . All roads lead to the evil Hayaf, who comes complete with the look and voice of Darth Vader.
HWJN is an ambitious undertaking that also has some of the look of Star Wars ,with its vast desert landscapes and communities in adobe-style housing. Yet there are enough points of difference for the comparisons with George Lucas’s epic to not become overwhelming, especially in its use of Arabic folklore. Scenes in Jeddah and the romance between Hajwan and Sawsan are among the most compelling, rather than the warring factions within the djinns and their evil scheming.
The cast seem to be enjoying themselves with Baraa Alem a gentlemanly hero only beginning to understand who he is and the powers he might possess. Mansour Ash makes his friend Ghurman a genial sidekick, whilst Naif Aldaferi is suitably smarmy and hissable as the leather-clad pantomime baddie Xanaam. All the various story strands combine into a slightly low-key conclusion but a postscript early in the credits suggest there are more adventures to follow for Hajwan and the world that Aliyasiri has created.
Production companies: Image Nation, MBC Studios, Vox Studios
International sales: AGC International, email@example.com
Producers: Yasir Alyasiri, Majid Alansari, Saad Ubutaily
Screenplay: Ibraheem Abbas, Yasir Alyasiri, Sarah Taibah, Hussam Alhulwah, based on the novel by Abbas.
Cinematography: Nemanja Veselinovic
Production design: Khaled Amin
Editing: Amr Akef
Main cast: Baraa Alem, Nour Alkhadra, Naif Aldaferi, Alanoud Saud