11 year-old Mexican Estrella (Paola Lara) finds herself living on the street when her mother is kidnapped by the terrifying Huascas criminal gang. She is soon taken in by a gang of homeless young boys, but their lives come into peril when one of the boys impulsively steals a gangster’s mobile telephone and handgun. With the Huascas now hunting the children down, Estrella’s only hope may be her mother’s ghostly voice whispering in her ear.
The bleak lives of children orphaned by Mexican gangs collide with supernatural horror in Issa López’s confident and boldly directed Tigers Are Not Afraid. The film immediately gathered widespread acclaim at film festivals around the world, as well as comparisons between López and fellow Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. It was an easy comparison to make: not only for their country of origin, but their manner of tackling human emotions via allegory. Here, the dozens of victims of a runaway criminal gang literally haunt the streets. The lives lost are visible, and they beg Estrella to avenge them. It is an uncertain haunting, however: are the ghosts real, or are they only in Estrella’s mind? Does she really have three wishes, or do her desires coincidentally align with real events? López plays her cards very close to her chest in answering that question.
Where López differs from Del Toro is in the much grittier and realistic world that the supernatural invades. Unlike Del Toro’s baroque environments and lyrical photography, López utilises a bleak and naturalistic aesthetic. Her ghosts are rotten cadavers. The environment is broken-down and unpopulated. It is a distinctive look that, when paired with the film’s urgent pace, makes Tigers Are Not Afraid a particularly original and effective slice of urban horror.
The representation of the dead is one of the film’s strongest assets. They are barely seen, most often represented as a soft voice and a thin stream of blood that follows Estrella along floors and walls. When they are more directly seen, they have a visceral impact. At the same time, some of the non-supernatural events provide the stronger horror. The gangsters mean business when tracking down the children, and not every child necessarily emerges safely by the film’s end.
López has found an exceptional juvenile cast for her film. As Estrella, Paola Lara delivers a superb protagonist and combines grit and vulnerability. The real highlight, however, is Juan Ramón López as “Shine”, the de facto leader of the abandoned children. Despite his young age, he shows off exceptional bravado in leading his friends. When Estrella joins the group, he is immediately resentful and makes certain she knows his feelings about her. It is a great performance, packed with resentment and a cocky front, and Ramón López is quite simply superb. Shine does not simply act as a leader either; he is effectively acting as father to his three younger friends – and particularly to the vulnerable Morro (Ney Arredondo), a traumatised four-year-old who wanders the streets tightly clutching a tiger soft toy. With Estrella’s arrival, the Peter Pan and Wendy comparisons become obvious.
Short, sharp and to the point, Tigers Are Not Afraid is an excellent work of supernatural horror with a distinctive setting and an uncompromising story. It is packed with powerful imagery. It does sensational work with a juvenile cast. It deserves to be seen by the widest audience possible.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is available today in Australia on DVD and bluray.