‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ Review: A Magically Harrowing Journey Into Mexico’s Drug Wars

✯✯✯✯½

It was definitely an exciting moment to be catching up with one of my favourite directors, Guillermo Del Toro, that was attending for last night’s screening of Tigers Are Not Afraid. As for his testimony before the ceiling lights faded into darkness, Issa López has shown herself to be a promising voice for emerging Latin American filmmakers; myself included. And it was very apparent from the first few minutes that she carried those magical realist roots that Guillermo had followed along with his recent film, The Shape of Water. Let it be known that magic cannot keep us safe from these hapless vicissitudes and we should embrace it for what it is.

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A young orphan, Estrella (played by Paola Lara), bands together with a crowd of boys whose caretakers fell upon the same fate as her’s, and determines herself to avenge her mother’s demise by taking down a drug cartel. Although the story is built across Joseph Campbell’s monomyth structure, which lent me to predict what was going to happen beforehand, the substance lends quite a unique spin on the ever familiar hero’s quest. Told as a fairytale from beginning to end, you don’t ever get to see so much of princes, warriors, or the titular tigers for that matter. Instead, you are in the slums of Mexico where children are to be vigilant from being shot at or kidnapped by gang members; they are, within reason, accustomed to these horrors. That stood out from most things I’ve seen so far: it is brutally honest, terrifying, heartfelt and subversive.

Paola’s character proves to these macho young boys that she is not a damsel in distress, but a young cub yearning for closure with a mother’s last embrace. It was a mistake to bring her mother back to life, as it only becomes a reminder that she is still under her wing and has yet to search the land out from beyond. At the same time, she is also reminded of a harsher truth that surround her environments because her mother’s ghost stands among many other ghosts who have fallen victim by the drug wars in Mexico. Jaime, the editor, told me after we left the cinema that he wanted to ask Issa if by any chance El Chino, played by Tenoch Huerta, was based on the real El Chapo. I wouldn’t doubt it after all, because magical realism has been mostly consistent about political commentary. 

Moving aside, we have El Shine, played by Juan Ramón López, who seems to be the brains of the orphaned bunch. The ferocious tiger, he’s bitter and sharp-witted, and looks like he’s potentially killed people in his past, as for the scar on his right cheek. But his tough quality is challenged by a new recruit, who happens to be a girl. “Girls are easy targets. We can’t let her in or else she’ll give away our hideout,” he scowled. But when she goes on to further prove her capabilities in this world, it’s hard to go on being the tiger that he is, and lets down his guard. It’s pretty evident in the title that these kids, while they’re young and outgoing, as they battle through these violent circumstances, have to face the transient reality of growing up from what is lost and to never lose sight of where they came from. As from some speculations about Estrella’s character, perhaps it had to reflect on the passing of Issa’s late mother, when she wasn’t able to say her last goodbyes. Not to make readers teary-eyed, but I understood it well that a movie like this was able to settle down the pain of losing a mother.

The magic weaving through the perspective of Estrella was something I was very well familiar with, especially from the blood trails that followed her around, and the ghosts of those murdered victims; these of which rekindled my memories of reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, only now I had to see it under orange-tinted streetlamps—those grotesque figures obscured in darkness—which still kept my eyes wide and buried deep into my seat as I knew it was not so much of a romantic sight at all. Tigers Are Not Afraid does not shy away from violence and trauma, especially when the subjects are children. The performances, though a hit-and-miss, are quite impressive. I couldn’t remember most of what Issa had discussed in the Q+A after the film, but they were amongst the 100 other children that auditioned for the part, and as a matter of fact, they did manage to play their roles well. Most of their knowledge of acting was borrowed from watching Spanish telenovelas. My family and I used to watch that stuff long ago when we started getting cable television to watch TVChile. I really wasn’t a big fan of them because I knew that most of the acting was trite and laughably dramatic, rehashing a lot of old ideas from past shows. But from the knowledge that these kids applied into their performances makes me want to get back in on it.

While the movie holds through with the orphans’ journey, carrying us through the terror and dismay of the drug wars through a neorealist (if perhaps a magical neorealist) lens — it could be this year’s most impressive horror film to date. It does feature supernatural occurrences and sights that may stir some peoples’ stomachs, as well as some unfortunate victims; they all happen to carry a significant purpose. No cheap thrills, it’s a real horror movie.


Watch the trailer right here.

All images via Shudder.


Directed by Issa López
Screenplay by Issa López
Produced by Marco Polo Constandse, Francisco González Compeán, Issa López, Carlos Taibo
Starring Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Ianis Guerrero, Rodrigo Cortés, Tenoch Huerta, Hanssel Casillas
Release Date: November 2, 2017 (Mexico)
Running Time: 83 minutes

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