REVIEW: ‘Saloum’ Is A Genre-Busting, Action-Packed Gem Of A Film

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Saloum - But Why Tho

Saloum, co-written and directed by Jean Luc Herbulot, is a Senegalese-language film that traverses multiple genres and delivers a cinematic experience unlike any other. In 2003 during the coup d’état of Guinea-Bissau, the trio of mercenaries known as Bangui’s Hyenas perform an extraction to spirit drug lord Felix (Renaud Farah) from the war scene. But their plane soon suffers a fuel leak, forcing them to land in the region of Saloum. They eventually make it to Camp Baobab, which is run by the kindly Omar (Bruno Henry). Soon more about the Hyenas’ past – specifically that of their de factor leader Chaka (Yann Gael) – is revealed, as well as a sinister secret about Baobab itself.

I’m a huge fan of films that blend genres together. It’s a fun test of a filmmaker’s skill. Can they make a romantic film that also happens to be a time travel odyssey or an alien invasion tale that slowly dissolves into a psychological thriller? But there’s also a risk in approaching that type of storytelling. The genre elements may not click together, or worse the filmmakers may be too in love with the idea to realize they haven’t written any compelling characters.

Saloum avoids this trap by slowly unfurling its genre elements as the film goes on. The first act feels more or less like a war film, with bullets and blood flying. Then it shifts to a thriller, as the Hyenas and Felix have to hide their identities from the other residents at Camp Baobab. Finally, the supernatural elements kick in, with the Hyenas facing off against a group of utterly horrifying monsters that infect and kill their victims from the inside out. Herbulot and co-writer/producer Pamela Diop keep the story moving at a steady pace, as well. Though the film is a mere 85 minutes, the story unfolds at a pace that’s never too fast or too slow – allowing the viewer to really get invested in the story, as well as the genre elements to have a constant presence.

I’m also impressed at how the film deals with the concept of revenge. At the beginning and end of the film, a phrase is repeated: “Revenge is like a river.” Not only does it back that up visually – a recurring image features a boy in chains holding a revolver and walking out to the middle of the ocean – but it had a deeper meaning as well. One of the Jackals has been seeking revenge for a long time and finally has the chance to exact it, but ends up setting off a chain reaction that leads to deadly consequences. He’s drowning in the desire for revenge, both metaphorically and literally, and dragging down his friends with him.

None of this would have clicked without a talented cast, and Herbulot cast Saloum well. Gael is an acting force as Chaka; he commands attention with a single word or look, and gets to bear the brunt of the emotional weight as the de facto lead. His key moment comes when he’s delivering a speech at the dinner table, with the tension rising and rising until it pops. That’s not discounting his chemistry with Roger Sallah and Mentor Ba, who play the other Jackals Rafa and Minuit.

Each one of these characters has a distinct personality and affectations – Rafa is more abrasive and concerned with their payday, while Minuit is a more spiritual mercenary who meditates and walks barefoot. The real standout, however, is Evelyne Ily Juhen as Awa. An inhabitant of Camp Baobab, Awa is deaf and mute – communicating entirely through sign language – and she knows who the Jackals are. This results in some of the tensest moments in the film, as Juhen and Gael sign angrily at each other and the rest of the group looks on in confusion.

And finally, there’s Herbulot’s direction – especially the action scenes. Most of the action is shot with a handheld camera, capturing the chaos of war as the Jackals ruthlessly dispatch their enemies. It also makes the supernatural parts of the film scarier, especially where the monsters are concerned; they look like a swarm of locusts from the deepest bowels of Hell and sound like it too. And cinematographer Gregory Corandi shrouds most scenes in a hazy gray fog, which gives the audience a subtle clue that not everything is as it seems.

Saloum is a genre-bending gem of a film, expertly weaving together a revenge narrative with notes of horror, action, and Westerns. Definitely check it out if you have the chance – it’s one of the most surprising films of the year, and is more proof that foreign films are the place for action fans to get their fill.

Saloum had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and is currently available to stream on Shudder.


Saloum
  • 9/10
    Rating - 9/10
9/10

TL:DR

Saloum is a genre-bending gem of a film, expertly weaving together a revenge narrative with notes of horror, action, and Westerns. Definitely check it out if you have the chance – it’s one of the most surprising films of the year, and is more proof that foreign films are the place for action fans to get their fill.

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