Tigers Are Not Afraid (Vuelven)

Mexico (2017) Dir. Issa López

Kids are ready to believe anything they are told, so thank god for fairy tales that gives them hope, strength, and nurture their sense of wonderment about the world. This just as well as life today is becoming increasingly unpleasant, even for us oldies.

The Mexican Drug War has left many areas as ghost towns with people either dead or disappearing and children being abandoned. Young street orphan Shine (Juan Ramón López) spies Caco (Ianis Guerrero), the man who kidnapped Shine’s mother and torched their home, in a drunken state and steals his phone and gun. Caco’s employer, drug lord Chino (Tenoch Huerta), wants the phone for himself and will stop at nothing to get it.

Elsewhere, when her school lesson is disrupted by gunfire outside, Estrella (Paola Lara) is given three wishes by her teacher to protect her. Returning home to find her mother is missing, Estrella catches Shine breaking into her house but chooses to follow him, afraid of being alone. Shine only agrees to let Estrella into their gang if she kills Caco but his death isn’t the end of their troubles, just the beginning.

When we think of horror films, we tend to think of supernatural happenings, monsters,  or buckets of gore. Tigers Are Not Afraid veers a little into the former category but the horror it depicts is very real and sadly, very topical though not new. The Mexican Drug War has claimed thousands of lives over the years as rival gangs duke it out to be the top dog among the dealers, not counting the multiple deaths their produce has led to either.

It might be unimaginable for many of us, but for the kids in the worst affected areas, this is their world – waking up to a dead body on the street corner or a junkie in their own home stealing something to fund their addiction. Issa López doesn’t sugar coat the facts behind this chilling tale of abandoned kids living a similarly lawless existence as the criminals just to survive, their parents missing because human trafficking is also a very profitable crime racket.

So what are the authorities doing about it? Unfortunately, one of the leading candidates in the local elections is Chino, and yes, his association with the criminal underworld is public knowledge. Now that is scary. His trafficking gang The Huascas appear to operate with complete impunity, randomly taking people – mostly women – from their homes to either sell or torture, with Estrella’s mother possibly being the latest victim.

Using the chalk given to her by her teacher symbolising her three wishes, Estrella wishes her mother would come back which she does, a spectral figures calling on her daughter to bring “Him” to her. Estrella doesn’t know what this means but all will be revealed later on. In the meantime, Estrella tries to befriend Shine and his ragtag group of orphans Pop (Rodrigo Cortés), Tucsi (Hanssel Casillas), and Morro (Nery Arredondo), aka the eponymous Tigers.

López uses this mighty beast to give the gang its core strength to survive, and not just as a cool name. Both Shine and Estrella narrate the key characteristics that make a tiger such a majestic and fearsome creature which they then apply to their own dealings with life on the streets. Shine’s graffiti illustration occasionally comes to life allowing the fantasy to manifest itself as something tangible beyond a defiant public symbol of their presence.

Fairy tales and the magic they weave to give the young an avenue to find hope and a solution to hardships are prominent theme of this story but there is a tragedy about the fact they are essentially wasted on a group of kids with nothing left to believe in except themselves. None of them can be any older than ten, yet they are going on 30, battle scarred, street wise, and eternally cynical, but their innocence is found in the cruel juxtaposition of Morro and the toy tiger plushie he cherishes.

Estrella is the bridge between these two worlds, holding onto the power of the wishes to navigate her way through the murky world is gun violence, child abduction, and hand to mouth living, yet is quick to adopt the same steely resolution and hardened indifference to the chaos around her just to survive. But she is different as she has a remaining connection with her mother albeit one she doesn’t understand, nor does she notice the trial of blood that follows her everywhere.

The avoidable reality of these kids having to grow up so suddenly without adult guidance is not discussed but doesn’t need to be as it is the horror López wants us to feel and fear. As dystopian as this all sounds, the fantasy elements don’t distract us from realising it’s a topic that needs to be tackled head on; it may not be subtle but how else do you get people’s attention but by ravaging the innocence of children to wake us up to what is happening under our noses?

Inanimate objects coming to life, a tiny flying dragon, and the peripatetic plasma will have audiences liken this to the films of Guillermo del Toro but this incidental at best if inescapable. López plays a different tact to del Toro – he wants all of us to escape real life, she wants it to be just the children. The young cast had never acted before or had very limited experience, but you’d never know from their incredible performances, Paola Lara and Juan Ramón López essentially writing themselves one way tickets to stardom here.

López herself must be a tiger because of the boldness of Tigers Are Not Afraid in tackling a sensitive subject in such an inventive and direct manner. Films like this that cut deep with raw naturalism shouldn’t also be wildly entertaining but if this what we can expect from Issa López, she is an up and coming director to get excited about.