THE STORY – A haunting horror fairytale set against the backdrop of Mexico’s devastating drug wars, TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID follows a group of orphaned children armed with three magical wishes, running from the ghosts that haunt them and the cartel that murdered their parents. Filmmaker Issa López creates a world that recalls the early films of Guillermo del Toro, imbued with her own gritty urban spin on magical realism to conjure a wholly unique experience that audiences will not soon forget.
THE CAST – Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Tenoch Huerta & Ianis Guerrero
THE TEAM – Issa López (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 83 Minutes
By Bianca Garner
“Tigers Are Not Afraid” opens with some true horror, not in the form of gore or special effects visuals, but in the form of all too real statistics. Since 2006, many individuals (mostly women and children) have disappeared from the streets of Mexico due to the on-going drug wars, which have resulted in whole towns becoming ‘ghost towns.’ Writer and director Issa López manages to show us this war, through the eyes of children who are fighting to survive life on the streets. The subject matter may be bleak, and at certain points, the film is hard to watch, but it is a rewarding watch. López has managed to create a gem of a film that it’s a crying shame that not enough critics are championing this compelling work of art.
The film is very much like an urban fairytale for the millennial generation. In fact, we open with a scene set in a classroom where a teacher tells her children to write their own fairytales. Our main character, Estrella (Paola Lara), creates a tale of a prince who longs to become a tiger, as tigers are not afraid. All the tranquil peace and serenity comes to an abrupt end when a gunfight erupts outside their school. With classes dismissed, Estrella returns home, only to find that her beloved mother has gone missing, presumably killed by a gang. Estrella’s teacher has granted her three wishes in the form of chalk sticks, so Estrella wishes for her mother’s return, but these wishes come with a gruesome, disturbing twist.
Followed by her mother’s ghost, Estrella falls in with a gang of orphans led by Shine (Juan Ramón López), who is the leader of a gang of feral ‘Lost Boys’ who include the likes of Pop (Rodrigo Cortes), Tucsi (Hanssel Casillas), and Morrito (Nery Arredondo). The group tries to find a safe place to live, all the while trying to keep one step ahead from the Huascas, a local gang hunting down the kids in search of a stolen iPhone. As the narrative unfolds, Estrella hears the ever-growing voices of the dead, who call on her to help them enact revenge on the gangster Caco (Ianis Guerrero) and his boss El Chino (Tenoch Huerta). However, will Shine and Estrella manage to outsmart the gangsters, and help the dead get justice? Or will, the children join the other side?
Many have remarked on the film’s strikingly similarities to Guillermo del Toro’s “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Like del Toro’s fairytales, “Tigers Are Not Afraid” shows us how innocent children can be and how quickly they must grow up to survive in the world that surrounds them. While del Toro’s films were set in the past creating a sense of nostalgia, López’s film is very much set in the present. There are no excuses to view this film with rose-tinted glasses, reminiscing on the past, as López isn’t afraid to show us the reality of the situation in Mexico that is occurring right now.
López’s fairy tale is a bleak, gothic one that feels very steeped in the folklore that makes up the foundations of Mexican culture. There is horror here comes in the form of the unquiet dead, and there is no other terror imaginable than having a loved one return as a bloody body wrapped in plastic, leaving a smear of blood wherever they go. It sounds like it belongs in a Stephen King novel, and it’s so effective because it taps into our primal fears of the unexpected. The visual imagery of Estrella’s frightened face as she reunites with her mother is enough to send a shiver down the spine of even the most hardened of horror film veterans.
The film’s real strength lies with its young cast who shine here. Paola Lara’ Estrella is a heroine who is fully complex and layered, reacting to the events around her and being fully involved with the film’s narrative. Juan Ramón López is also remarkable, with his character being full of raw energy and rage. Watching the relationship between Shine and Estrella evolve on screen is highly engrossing, as these two characters gradually learn to respect each other. A word of warning, some of the scenes that involve the children are truly heartbreaking and all too real. You will find yourself tearing up more than once while watching this film.
“Tigers Are Not Afraid” premiered at Fantastic Fest, where López was the first woman ever to receive the award of Best Horror Director, and since then the film has received several more awards. Truth be told, López and her film rightfully deserve every award they obtain. Some may go into this film expecting a run-of-the-mill studio-produced horror film jam-packed with jump scares, however you will be greeted with something so much better. This is a powerful, moving fable that hits hard to the very core of our being and is truly a magical treat for all of the senses.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A powerful, moving fable that hits hard to the very core of our being and is truly a magical treat for all of the senses.
THE BAD – Some heartbreaking scenes involving children may be too much for some viewers.
THE OSCARS – None