Tigers Are Not Afraid (“Vuelven”) (Issa López, 2017) 3½ out of 4 stars.
A horror film set amidst the real-life tragedies of Mexico’s horrific drug wars, Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid (“Vuelven,” or “They Come Back” in the original Spanish) tells the distressing tale of orphaned children fighting back against the men who have executed their parents. Fusing gritty realism with elements of the fantastic, López (Casi Divas) recalls her compatriot Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, a comparison that helps explains why he is such an apparent fan of her movie. Children in danger always provoke viewer engagement (and distress), and when they refuse to go quietly into that good night, they earn our especial respect. Though what we see, were we to truly think about its implications, is profoundly disturbing, given the cinematic framing device it is also thoroughly gripping.
We start with Estrella (Paola Lara), in school as gunfire erupts outside, completing an in-class exercise to compose a fairy tale. Cut to Shine (Juan Ramón López), a young boy we think she conjures up from her imagination who turns out to be part of a parallel narrative. He stalks a drunk gangster and steals his gun and knife. Estrella dreams of “a prince who wanted to be a tiger,” and he seems like that tiger, fearless in his pursuit of what little power he can grab. As Estrella runs home, she is stalked, in turn, by an unfolding trail of blood. When her mother isn’t there, we fear the worst. But soon, as Shine comes foraging nearby, she follows, joining his merry band of lost boys; they don’t want girls, but she joins, anyway. The price of entry, however, is an act of violence that even Shine refuses to do.
Soon, the supernatural creeps into the harsh truths of the cartel’s control of all matters local. The ghosts of the dead demand retribution, frightening Estrella but also aiding and abetting her as she searches for her mother’s killers. Lopez ups the aesthetic ante with her choice of locations, particularly the abandoned institution where the kids take refuge, an upstairs floor filled with water in which large carp swim. How did they get there? It’s all part of the larger mystery and magical charm of the movie. Brutal as it gets, the mystic otherworldliness of the clash between spirits and villains makes it watchable. Tigers may not be afraid, but we should all fear wronged innocents.