In the slums of Mexico City, it’s easy for people to disappear; whether through violence and death, or kidnappings that force young men into gangs and young women into sex work, and trafficking. It’s into that grim, sun-scorched world of bleached buildings and concrete that Tigers Are Not Afraid spins a parable about love and loss.
The film tells the story of young Estrella (Paola Lara), a schoolgirl who returns home one day to find her home empty, and her mother missing. To make matters worse, she is haunted by the ghostly presence of her mother who appears to her in nightmarish visions as a rotting corpse wrapped in plastic bags. After days of waiting, she falls in with a gang of younger boys, led by the tempestuous El Shine (Juan Ramón López). These ‘lost boys’ live in rooftop shelters and empty buildings, stealing what they can and avoiding being kidnapped and pressed into the cartel gangs. El Shine leads them with a bravado beyond his years, fuelled by the opportunistic theft of a local gangster’s prize pistol and phone; but that same theft soon has them all on the run, on account of incriminating content on the device.
Given the Mexican connection and the magical realism aspects to the more serious plot, it’s all but impossible not to draw connections to the world of Guillermo del Toro. The fantastical nature of Estrella’s hallucinations, combined with the bleak horror of the story clearly apes some of the same concepts seen in Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. It’s a great source to draw from, and for the most part, it works well. There is a constant pervasive sense of there being a supernatural presence looming over the characters, both in the frightening visions and the almost living graffiti that appears and moves around. But there is a sophomoric feel to much of it, and even at under 90 minutes the film feels padded in places.
It’s far more a film that clearly has things to say, most particularly the plight of disappeared women, stolen by the sex trafficking trade, and the ruin of the lives they leave behind. Although such matters have been tackled far more specifically in the documentary ¿Dónde Están? (aka ‘The Missing Women of Mexico’). But while Issa López clearly feels passionate about these matters, her script and film never quite feel like they tie up in a satisfactory manner. This combined with the impossible to avoid comparisons with del Toro means that the story feels like a poor cousin to those other films. This makes Tigers Are Not Afraid a worthy, but not exemplary, addition to the canon of Mexican horror cinema.
Available to stream on Shudder now.