One of the opening scenes of Issa Lopez’s magical realist fabula Tigers Are Not Afraid depicts a group of Mexican schoolchildren discussing with their teacher the elements of a fairy tale. After they go through the litany – princesses and princes, castles, magic, tigers, three wishes – the room erupts in gunshots and the children dive beneath their desks. Their teacher tries to keep them occupied in making up stories, and offers three pieces of chalk to Estrella, telling her that they are three wishes.
The opening scene establishes the fabulist narrative, which follows a group of Mexican children, orphaned after their parents are kidnapped or killed by the violent cartel that runs their city. They’re forced together into a makeshift family on the run, living and sleeping outside or in abandoned building, scrounging for food, shelter, and entertainment. Led by Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez), the children spend their days trying to survive, avoiding the cartel’s enforcers who, according to legend, cannibalize children and sacrifice parents to their gods. One day, the group is joined by Estrella (Paola Lara), the girl from the beginning who comes home one evening to discover that her mother has been kidnapped. Armed with her three wishes and a special connection to the supernatural, Estrella helps to protect the group from the violent head of the cartel El Chino (Tenoch Huerta) when he discovers that Shine has stolen something that could destroy him.
Critics have already compared Tigers Are Not Afraid to the early works of Guillermo del Toro, and there’s certainly a great deal of similarity. The narrative focuses on children navigating a violent adult world, trying to survive with only each other, unable to rely on their parents or authorities for protection. They build stories, of princes and tigers and evil demons, overlaid onto their circumstances, and the film fully integrates the supernatural with the everyday, constructing a fairy tale in which dragons spring from the backs of cell phones and spray-painted portraits of tigers stalk the night. As the children navigate the dangers of their own city, they also remain children, playing games in the midst of horrifying circumstances.
But while Tigers Are Not Afraid is certainly comparable to del Toro’s work, we should be careful in simply treating it as a young director emulating an older one. Mexican filmmaking, art, and literature has a long history of magical realism, and it is from this that Lopez draws much of her imagery and narrative. This is a film that works on its own terms and to its own ends, dealing with issues of gang violence, kidnapping, trauma, and abandonment via its fairy tale structure. The frightened and furious tiger is both a stand-in for the imprisoned children (there is one very harrowing and all-too-topical scene in which small children are kept in cages), and the roaming gunmen of the cartel who hunt them in the dark. The forces that attach themselves to Estrella are not all benevolent, with their own agendas and desires, as manipulative of the lives of children as the adult world.
There are almost no major adult characters, save for the cartel enforcers, leaving the film to rely on the prodigious talents of the young actors for its emotional core. And they are more than up for the task, giving haunting, funny, complex performances across the board. There’s a sense of play throughout the film, even in the direst and darkest circumstances, that keeps the narrative from being bogged down in horror and darkness. Lopez’s camera avoids establishing the layout of the city too clearly, turning it into a labyrinth with a monster at its center.
Issa Lopez will continue to be a director to watch in years to come. Far from simply following in del Toro’s footsteps, she’s forging her own path, making her own stories, giving voice to the marginalized children trapped in a horror story of adult creation, finding their way out of the maze. Tigers Are Not Afraid is a searing, emotional celebration of children, told through their eyes, in a world in which magic is possible and tigers stalk the night.
Tigers Are Not Afraid shows at Fantasia 2018 on July 30.