By Jarret Edmund
CALGARY – On the surface, director Issa López’s first film Vuelven (Tigers Are Not Afraid) is a grotesque character study of Mexican street life and the violent rule of gangs and politicians. The film’s complex mix of genre seamlessly blends elements of magical realism, coming of age, and thriller horror. But underneath Vuelven’s grim fairy tale lies a nuanced critique of machismo culture, an unflinching depiction of power in a corrupt democracy, and an allegorical analysis of violence inevitably leading to more violence.
Anchored by an outstanding young cast starring Paolo Lara and Juan Ramón López, Issa López builds upon the robust tradition of Mexican cinematic storytelling in a contemporary adaptation of W.W. Jacobs’ short story The Monkey’s Paw. The film follows a young girl, Estrella (Paolo Lara), as she copes with the recent kidnapping and disappearance of her mother. She is granted three wishes, and in a state of grief wishes for the return of her mother.
But the dead cannot return to life so easily. After gaining the trust of a ragtag group of orphaned boys, Estrella must navigate the desolate ghost town destroyed by the Cartel. Pursued by gangsters as well as the tormented souls and victims of this prolonged violence, Estrella and her companions seek shelter and formulate a plan to exact revenge upon the criminals responsible.
The strength of López’s work lies in her ability to juggle the film’s heavier content with the youthful exuberance of her cast. Moments of cruel violence are expertly paired with the childish antics of the film’s young stars. The result is a brilliant application of the uncanny as a cinematic device, manipulated by López’s directorial eye to suspend disbelief, hover over horror and draw tears. In Vuelven, the realities and consequences of violence is no fable – the story begins by reminding us of the thousands of victims that have gone missing during Mexico’s bloody cartel wars, and the personal relationship of each character to this fact is repeatedly hammered home.
The film’s unique resonance comes in the viewing of this conflict through the eyes of children.
For them, López reminds us, there is no bringing back the dead.
CUFF, CUFF 2018 review, Tigers are not Afraid
Tigers are not Afraid will have an encore screening on Sunday April 22 at 1:45 pm at The Globe.