In a Mexican city devastated by the Mexican Drug War, Estrella is a young girl who gets her life turned upside down after hearing gunfire outside the school. There’s a panic, and Estrella’s teacher hands her three pieces of chalk, telling her that these will grant her three wishes. After the shooting incident, classes end up being cancelled indefinitely. On her way back home, Estrella sees a dead body in the street. Just a normal day in cartel-world, nothing new here…but the trail of blood from the body leads to her house, and here she discovers that her mother is missing. And it becomes apparent that she will not be returning anytime soon. Getting lonely and hungry, Estrella wishes for her mother to return, and then begins having spooky visions of her mother as a spirit. Soon, the desperate girl meets with other children, a group of orphan boys, who are trying to survive in a increasingly dangerous world.
Tigers Are Not Afraid (the Spanish title of the film is Vuelven, which translates into “They Return”), is a Mexican fantasy horror film from 2017, written and directed by Issa López. And while having some magical moments of wonder, it’s a dark and grim story about the horrors of the Mexican drug cartels, human trafficking and kidnappings. And even though the young girl is granted three wishes, the good old saying “be careful what you wish for” is ever so present here, like in many dark fairytales. Those who have seen Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and his lesser known The Devil’s Backbone, will immediately recognize the influences here, with children trying to cope with mixing fantasy and wonder into their terribly depressing and dangerous environment.
The children in the movie had zero acting experience prior to this film, yet their performances are quite impressive. In order to get as authentic reactions from the child actors as possible, the film was shot in chronological order and the children were never shown a script. When a movie features young children in very dark and dangerous situations, the acting is of major importance, and just like The Innocents (“De Uskyldige”) the child actors bring forth believable performances, and certainly deserve praise for their efforts.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is a touching movie with some realistic horror mixed with fantasy elements. While the film does have ghosts and corpses, the true horror elements lie in the savagery by the people surrounding these children. The ghosts are not the villains, and they’re mainly creepy because they resemble the injustice and brutality they’ve endured, and they want revenge. The supernatural events happening to Estrella also feels like a situation where the interpretation is left to the viewer. Just like in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, one can easily speculate whether the supernatural events really occur or if they’re just the child’s way of coping with what is happening around her. Tigers Are Not Afraid is worth checking out, especially if you like the typical Guillermo-style dark fairytale, where the most horrible things the audience will see is the part that most resemble the reality of the world we live in.
Writer and director: Issa López
Original title: Vuelven
Country & year: Mexico, 2017
Actors: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Nery Arredondo, Hanssel Casillas, Rodrigo Cortes, Ianis Guerrero, Tenoch Huerta