Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A dark fairy tale amidst gangs and ghosts

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Mexican film “Tigers Are Not Afraid” is a dark fairy tale set between two different kinds of horror. While it gives us a chillingly realistic glimpse into a harsh and brutal world riddled with crime and violence everyday, it also has some creepy moments of supernatural horror, and it is alternatively compelling and harrowing to watch how the movie juxtaposes its stark crime drama with unadulterated innocence and spooky magic realism and then generates several emotionally powerful moments to strike you hard.

At first, we are introduced to a young school girl named Estrella (Paola Lara). Everything looks fine as she and her classmates are writing down each own fairy tale as instructed by their teacher, but their boisterous mood is suddenly disrupted by a bloody shooting incident outside the school, and we subsequently see her leaving the school early like other students as their school is temporarily closed down.

When Estrella arrives at her home where she has lived alone with her mother, she finds that her mother is disappeared for no particular reason, and we already have a pretty good idea on what happened to her mother. As told to us at the beginning of the film, thousands of innocent civilians were killed or vanished in Mexico due to the ongoing drug war which has continued for more than 10 years, and Estrella’s neighborhood is no exception as implied by a brief but meaningful shot showing several black ribbons hung outside buildings.

While desperately waiting for her mother, Estrella senses that her mother was probably taken away and then killed by local gang members. At one earlier point in the movie, we see her experiencing a surreal moment similar to one of the most memorable moments in Gabriel García Márquez’s great novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, and there later comes a ghostly moment involved with Three Wishes, which is incidentally one of the most common elements among fairy tales.

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Meanwhile, Estrella comes to get involved with a group of orphan kids led by a boy nicknamed El Shine (Juan Ramón López). Although the first encounter between El Shine and Estrella is not very pleasant to say the least, she soon becomes another member of his group, and she gets to know more about him and other kids in the group, who tragically lost their loved ones just like her and have seen pretty terrible things as they try to survive for themselves in their grim, unforgiving world.

And then the situation becomes quite dangerous for not only Estrella but also El Shine and his gangs. El Shine recently stole a gun and a smartphone as shown from the opening part of the film, and it turns out that there are some dangerous people searching for that smartphone, which is subsequently revealed to contain something which can expose the hidden connection between the local gang organization and a certain prominent local politician. After warned by her mother’s ghost in advance, Estrella tries to hide along with El Shine and other kids, but, of course, they only find themselves facing more dangers, and it looks like they do not have much chance of survival no matter how much they try.

While never looking away from the misery and horror in its young main characters’ circumstance, the movie occasionally gives us small intimate moments of innocence, and these moments make a striking contrast with a number of gut-wrenching scenes which are thankfully restrained as sticking to the limited viewpoint of our young characters in the film. As indirectly told to us in the middle of one tense and harrowing sequence, many heinous criminal activities such as human trafficking are pretty common incidents in their gloomy world, and we are chilled more as being reminded that what is shown in the film is not so far from what is going on in the Mexican society at present.

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It goes without saying that the movie is often uncomfortable to watch as having many moments showing its young main characters in grave danger, but director/writer Issa López strikes a right balance as mixing well fairy tale elements into the realistic background of her film, and we are served with a number of uncannily haunting moments tinged with mystery and poignancy. As we come to care about the young main characters in the film, we also come to believe these strange and spooky moments experienced by them, and that is the main reason why the final shot of the movie works despite a sudden change of mood.

López also draws the unadorned natural performances from her young main cast members, who, according to IMDB, mostly depended on improvisation while never being shown the script. While Paola Lara ably functions as the emotional anchor of the film we can hold onto, Juan Ramón López is commendable in his strong performance which took me back to Fernando Ramos da Silva in “Pixote” (1981), and several other young performers in the film including Hanssel Casillas and Rodrigo Cortes also hold well each own place around Lara and López.

Overall, “Tigers Are Not Afraid” is a small but unforgettable work to be admired for good reasons, and it is really a shame that the movie quickly fell under radar even though it was praised a lot by Stephen King and, not so surprisingly, Guillermo del Toro. If you liked del Toro’s “The Devil’s Backbone” (2001) and “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006), you will not be disappointed at all with this overlooked gem, and you may also come to recommend to others around you.

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