Tigers Are Not Afraid first published by ScirFiNow
“There’s no wishes. Don’t be stupid.”
“I wish that your scar disappears.”
This exchange between hardheaded, traumatised Shine (Juan Ramós López) and idealistic, quixotic Estrella (Paola Lara) captures a dialectic that is ongoing in Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid (aka Vuelven, literally ‘return’), a film that constantly interweaves fact and fantasy through the storytelling mode known as magical realism. For Tigers Are Not Afraid begins with a set of factual figures about the casualties in Mexico’s Drug War, and ends with an imaginative idyll – and in between, we watch Estrella, Shine and other children – Tucsi (Hanssel Casillas), Pop (Rodrigo Cortes) and little Morro (Nery Arredondo) – processing through the filter of myth and animism the horror of their all-too-real experiences.
In the film’s opening, programmatic scene, young Estrella is in a classroom where the pupils are being encouraged to fashion their own stories through a recombination of listed fairytale archetypes and motifs. The lesson is violently cut short by bursts of gunfire outside that have the whole class cowering on the floor. There, the kindly teacher calms Estrella by handing her three pieces of chalk which she says will grant the girl “three wishes, like in fairytales”. Estrella will then narrate her own life story – orphaned after the gang of local would-be politician Servando ‘El Chino’ Esparza (Tenoch Huerta) kills her mother – as though it were a children’s fiction. Estrella’s point of view on events is doubly determined, showing not only the harsh reality of her life on the streets of new Mexico with other young victims of cartel violence, but also a phantasmagorical world of animated graffiti, revenant dead, flying dragons, living plush toys and snaking rivulets of blood (a potent visualisation of the way that violence ramifies and gushes outwards to others beyond its epicentre). Rather than one of these perspectives being accurate and the other childish delusion, both must be synthesised to follow the story from beginning to bittersweet end.
Comparisons to Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) are inevitable, but where fellow Mexican Guillermo del Toro’s film used the Spanish Civil War as a broader reflex for other authoritarian power structures (including the Bush era in which it was made), López’s film is much more direct in its contemporary concerns, unfolding as it does in an all-too-recognisable Mexico of today, and using the furnishings of fantasy to turn unimaginable Drug War reality into something that the viewer can find conceivable, if not quite palatable. The results are all at once disturbing and profoundly moving, as Shine’s pragmatic nihilism and Estrella’s haunted escapism merge into a conflicted vision of the unconscionable. As for the tigers, they are a multivalent symbol of princeliness and predation, of entrapment and escape, and their presence in the film variously as spray-painted tags on walls, as children’s stuffed toys, as masks, as protective figures painted on footballs, and as living, breathing creatures (of the imagination) ensures that López’s harrowing, beautiful film remains a state-of-the-nation allegory of a different stripe.
© Anton Bitel