DIRECTED BY: ISSA LOPEZ/2017 (Mexico)/2019 (USA)
Already drawing comparisons with Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Issa Lopez’s Vuelven, released in the United States as Tigers are not Afraid, delves into similar fantasy/horror territory and delivers a wholly original tale that equally timely and gripping. The story is focused on the violence associated with the deadly cartels and the effect it has had on Mexico’s children, as well as the ghosts it has left behind.
In the middle of a literary lesson on fairy tales, 10-year old Estrella (Paola Lara) is forced to fall to the floor as cartel violence explodes outside their school window. The teacher, in an effort to keep her young student calm, hands her 3 pieces of broken chalk and tells her that she has 3 wishes. When the danger has passed, Estrella makes her way to find her home abandoned. Her loving mother is no where to be seen, and day after day we watch Estrella wait for her to come home, passing time by watching a group of orphaned boys who are living on a nearby roof. Soon we see a stream of blood enter the apartment. This stream seems to have a will of its own as it begins to travel and touch things in the apartment that reveals to Estrella that her mother might not be coming home after all.
This will lead Estrella to join the group of orphan boys as they seek to hide away from the gang that serves a local politician, pushing drugs and kidnapping women, none of who ever return. When one of the orphans, El Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez) steals the gang leader Caco’s (Ianis Guerrero) phone, they begin to unravel a larger mystery of what happened to Estrella’s mother. As Estrella begins to use her 3 wishes, supernatural elements of fantasy and horror infuse themselves into the story as the trail of blood follows Estrella as she and the other orphans struggle to survive the dangerous streets of their corrupted city.
Issa Lopez’s script and direction fire on all cylinders as she crafts an extremely grounded and gritty tale that brings the audience to a ground level view of the violence and horror affecting the people, and especially the children, of Mexico where the cartels rule with an iron fist. Tigers are not Afraid doesn’t spare the children of its story from the violence surrounding them. If this film is grounded as a fairy tale, it is not the “happily ever after” variety, but the cautionary type that prepares children for the brutal world that is all around them.
The film has already drawn praise from the likes of Guillermo del Toro and Stephen King, and Tigers are not Afraid deserves every bit of it. At a lean 83 minute run time, Issa Lopez doesn’t waste a second, packing 2 hours of story into 1 hour and 23 minutes, keeping the tension throughout the story, but still allowing the story to breath and develop at a natural pace.
While the film isn’t trying to offer any commentary, its connection to the cartel violence puts an urgency on having deeper conversations on topics like immigration, seeking asylum, and future of the children who are the ones left to survive it all. The ghosts that lurk in the shadows of the film not only add horror elements to the story being told, but seek to remind and reassure the victims of such violence that death is not the final word. Justice will be had….eventually. It should also be a sobering reminder to those perpetrating such violence that they will not get away with it. Death will find us all.
Tigers are not Afraid, or Vuelven, will debut at the Alamo Drafthouse and other select theaters tomorrow, and may be the best film opening this weekend, even better than the highly-anticipated IT sequel. Tigers are not Afraid is a Spanish-language film with English subtitles.