Issa López immediately sets the stage for her latest film, Tigers Are Not Afraid, with an opening text screen detailing the horrific loss of human life in Mexico’s ongoing drug war. The voices of schoolchildren enter the soundtrack, as they recount the creatures and heroes of fairy tales. Moments later, their classroom falls into chaos as gunfire begins to thunder outside, and bullets perforate the walls over their cowering heads. The dichotomy is striking, and purposeful; ‘What use are fairytales to these children?’ the film seems to demand. ‘What business do princes and genies have when we’re confronted with such brutality, such callous disregard for life?’ Tigers Are Not Afraidspends the rest of its runtime grappling with these questions, and the result is one of the best and most urgent fantasy films in recent memory, destined to be a classic among fans of socially-charged fantasy and horror. It stands alongside works like Pan’s Labyrinth in contrasting the fantastical and the brutal, but speaks in its own voice from the first moments to the last.
that harrowing opening, schoolgirl Estrella returns to find her mother
missing, seemingly one of the ever-increasing number of innocents
spirited away by the local Huascas gang. Estrella joins up with Shine, a
boy trying desperately to keep a small band of fellow orphans safe from
the Huascas after stealing a gun and cell-phone from one of them. But
strange forces linger in the background, pursuing Estrella and her new
friends. Estrella was given three pieces of chalk by her teacher, along
with the promise that each one would grant a wish; this magically
appears to be true, but Estrella’s wishes also seem as much a curse as a
While other films have positioned fantastical elements as a relief against the harshness of the ‘real’ world, Tigers Are Not Afraid
is more ambiguous. In López’s film, the entities silently following
Estrella and her new friends are often sinister and threatening. These
aren’t comforting fantasies meant as a means of escape, but simply
another aspect of an endlessly threatening world. The film is as much
horror as it is fantasy, and walks a fine line between the two. Like the
gun and cell phone that Shine steals in the opening scenes, Estrella’s
chalk brings as much danger as power — power and control over one’s
environment is really at the core of the film.
Shine especially is in a constant search for control, and at first meets Estrella’s newfound position of authority within their group with hostility. Estrella, meanwhile, simply wants to regain control over her previously ordered life. In their pursuit of these goals, both grapple with dangerous power that does not on its own offer clear salvation. Like many films before, Tigers Are Not Afraid cannily blends fantasy elements with a stark appraisal of the world we currently live in, and the two elements play off and enhance each other like an alchemical potion.
López, along with cinematographer Juan Jose Saravina, has also created a film that’s both visually and thematically captivating. The camera is often free-floating — sometimes even letting the subject stray into the corner of the frame — but nonetheless maintains an intimacy with its subjects. The darkly lit streets feel dangerous and threatening, and even more so when the occasional dragon flits from the shadows. While sparse, the visual effects are at home against the dingy backdrop, and the more horrific makeup effects by Adam Zoller help the threats of violence feel real and grounded.
The cast, almost entirely composed of young children, is in top form. At this point, the old stigma about child actors really needs to be put to bed. Paola Lara and Juan Ramón López, as Estrella and Shine, carry the film magnificently on their shoulders. If Tigers Are Not Afraid has any real shortcoming, it’s really that it’s too short. The credits roll after a mere hour and seventeen minutes, and more time to flesh out the side characters — or even to let the audience drink in the atmosphere — would not have gone amiss. One important moment, which won’t be spoiled here, feels critically undermined by the film’s rather quick pace, although there is plenty of time given to the aftermath.
There are worse issues to raise with a film, however. That is the cardinal rule, after all: always leave them wanting more. Tigers Are Not Afraid absolutely does that, presenting a dazzling and often harrowing mix of fantasy and brutal realism, and establishing Issa López as the new director to watch for genre fans.
Beginning as a co-host on a Concordia TV film show before moving on to chief film nerd at Forgetthebox.net, Thomas is now bringing his knowledge of pop-culture nerdery to Sordid Cinema. Thomas is a Montrealer born and raised, and an avid consumer of all things pop-cultural and nerdy. While his first love is film, he has also been known to dabble in comics, videogames, television, anime and more.
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