“We Forget [and Remake] Who We Are”: What Returns in Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017)

“Once Upon a Time…”

What does it mean when a story introduces itself as a fairy tale? Most fairy tale films fall into two categories: the imitation and the innovation. The first is a conscious adaptation of a specific fairy tale, one which the audience will already be familiar with and will have certain expectations about. The second produces a new fairy tale but treats it as though it has some aged quality, like we learned about it as children. This second kind of film is reflexive of our culture, and so its subject and tropes are familiar but look different. They are innovative, but to be a ‘fairy tale’, they rely on pre-established character types. Tigers Are Not Afraid drops into this latter category, as it uses fairy tale themes and images to deal with modern violence and trauma. On the surface, it seems like both the characters and the film itself mix fairy tale rhetoric with reality as a coping mechanism. Fairy tales have a certain comforting structure, where the good succeed and things eventually resolve. It makes sense that the young Estrella uses this language to understand what is happening to her, and to cope with the violence surrounding her. In theory, fairy tales are how a culture defines itself, and in an undefined or violent environment, they are the only structure which makes sense. However, I think there is something more complicated happening in this film, a conscious and co-existing combination of reality, fantasy, and horror. Because the characters are so removed from their families and culture, stories become more confusing and layered. The film is thus not just a fairy tale, it’s a threefold reading on a real and current horror.

“…there was a Prince who wanted to be a tiger.”

Tigers Are Not Afraid follows a group of children trying to survive the ongoing drug war in Mexico. They live in what the film describes as a “ghost town”, as it’s an abandoned city, but it is also fueled by the literal dead, the nameless bodies left rotting in empty dark rooms. The film begins in a classroom as a teacher asks her students to name different fairy tale figures and then tells them to write their own story using these aspects. A shooting outside suddenly interrupts their lesson, and as the class hides on the floor, the teacher crawls over to Estrella and hands her three pieces of chalk. She explains that each piece is a wish, like in a fairy tale, and then she finishes her lesson while crouched on the ground. The teacher gives Estrella chalk to distract her from this terrifying situation, making it seem as though the shooting is part of a fairy tale. Estrella takes this coping mechanism and applies it to her entire life. She uses the first wish once she realizes that her mother is not coming home, but unlike the happy fairy tales she is familiar with, something terrible arrives. The being she summons is horrifying, so frightening that the film refuses to show it in detail, focusing instead on Estrella’s reaction.

After fleeing from this un-dead mother, Estrella joins a group of orphaned boys who are living on the streets and trying to escape the Huascas gang. They discover that one of their stolen phones has a graphic video of a local politician torturing and killing a woman. It is noteworthy that this death, and the other kidnapping in the film, have no clear motive. The young boys believe that the gangs take children to sell their organs and to rip them apart, but that is not confirmed. Although we see children in cages in one scene, the film never reveals why they were taken in the first place. This lack of information makes the violence in the film seem utterly senseless. It goes so far as to suggest that the entire situation and war is irrational and unpredictable, especially to those swept up in its destructive shadow.

“I’m a Princess?”
“No. You Are A Warrior.”

Much of the film focuses on reconfiguring trauma, wherein you take something harmful which makes no sense, project onto it, and give it a definition. Rather than talking directly about themselves, or their violent pasts, the children interpret themselves using stories and fairy tale logic. We are introduced to this concept early on, as the film cuts between Estrella writing her fairy tale and Shine as he paints a tiger on a wall. Both characters are writing a story about themselves, but in a removed way, focusing instead on Princes and tigers rather than their own lives. Tigers are an interesting icon in the film, as the characters treat tigers in the same way they treat fairies. They act as though tigers are some mystic fairy tale creature which no one has ever seen. A student even throws out the word ‘tiger’ during Estrella’s class discussion, when everyone is naming common fairy tale aspects. Tigers are a real animal, but in this environment, they are as unreal and fantasy-like as any of the characteristics listed by the class. The tiger’s unreal quality is one of the reasons I find the film’s ending so troubling, as Estrella comes across a tiger, but perhaps not a literal one. The boundaries between real and not become increasingly troubling in the film, but more on that later.

Shine has a different story about a tiger, in his, the tiger was captured by a wealthy man and kept in a cage. The tiger escapes his cage after some gang members kill his owner, and later roams the city freely, eating children with no parents and causing destruction. Both Shine and Estrella stories suggests that “Tigers never forget. They are hunters” and that they are not afraid, hence the movie’s title. Estrella and Shine return to this line, “Tigers are not afraid”, when they are in danger or when they are trying to convince themselves to do something. They want to emulate the tiger and have as much freedom as he does, but as Estrella notes, the story about the tiger is quite sad. The tiger might have free reign over this ghost city, but he cannot return to the jungle from which he was stolen. He has limited freedom, and ultimately does not protect the children from harsh reality. Shine draws him on every object and wall, as though he is some icon which will protect him. Morro also carries a little tiger stuffy with him, yet he and Shine both die tragically. In fact, Morro and Shine are the only figures who carry visible signs of trauma: Morro cannot speak, and Shine has a scar on his face. Does that suggest that these characters are unable to fully escape from their trauma in the same way that the other characters do? Why include an actual tiger in the film when it offered no protection to Morro and Shine? What purpose does it serve? I think it has something to do with the fact that each child pictures the tiger in a different context or genre. Estrella starts her story by explaining that “Once Upon a Time, there was a Prince who wanted to be a tiger”, and this is firmly rooted in fairy tale tradition, especially the “Once Upon a Time”. Shine’s story includes gang members and bloodshed, and so he views the tiger using a different genre.

“He is the King of this Fucked Up Kingdom”

While Estrella uses fairy tales to understand her world, Shine uses horror. His story suggests that the violent deaths in his city come from a tiger, noting the tiger is “the king of this fucked up kingdom”. Like Estrella, Shine’s story focuses on Princes, kings, and tigers, but he sees them through the horror genre. He imagines himself as a tiger, as an angry man who has escaped from a cage. He also suggests that the gang members are Satanists, and that they have a deal with the Devil. This means that Shine reads reality like a horror story, complete with demons, man-eating monsters, and Satan. Comparing the real world to the horror genre gives trauma a certain shape, just as Estrella’s fairy tales do.

Shine name represents the juxtaposition between horror and fantasy which Estrella and Shine signal. People call him Shine because of the literal shiner or burn on his face. Although he hates the scar, Shine fixates on the moments which led to it. He keeps the lighter which set his house on fire. He keeps the phone which has a picture of his mother right before she was killed. When he later asks Estrella to wish his scar away, he is essentially asking her to wipe away his trauma, or the visible part of it. However, under Estrella’s fairy tale lens, the name Shine takes on a mystic quality, like the shine of a star or a personality. The major difference between Estrella and Shine’s perspectives is that Estrella still has hope and literal wishes, although each wish grows increasingly dark. Ultimately, as the two figures grow closer, the film implies that their world is equal parts fairy tale and horror, and these are essentially the same but arrive from different backgrounds, just like the characters.

“Tigers Never Forget”

One notable scene does an excellent job of reconfiguring trauma and showing how life continues within horror. As Estrella walks home from school, she passes by a wall with two bloody spots on it. She stops and lifts her hand by the spots, as though tracing on the wall. If you have ever seen a movie about childhood, you will know that there is almost always a scene where the child drags their hand across a gate or wall. It is something we associate with childhood in film, especially as it demonstrates that children absorb the city in a different way than adults, that they pay attention to the groves and dots on its walls. But it’s not an innocent moment here, Estrella is looking at blood and thus corrupts this cinematic image we have of childhood. The scene becomes increasingly disturbing when Estrella turns around and sees a group of children playing limbo with police tape. Murder scenes are such a regular and normal thing that the children here are totally numb to trauma. The horror once associated with murder and bodies is gone, worst still, it’s ignored. When Estrella turns to the other side of the street, she sees a bloody corpse covered with a rug. There are a few people around the body, but none of them seem particularly concerned, in fact, no one is looking at the body. Estrella watches and then leaves, as though nothing is wrong, but three drops of blood follow her from the scene. This implies that although Estrella no longer perceives trauma from traumatic events, the horrific feeling still follow her. She brings trauma with her, only a few steps behind.

Estrella’s wishes visualize her suppressed trauma, as they never come out the way she wants. Her mother returns, but in an undead and frightening form. She spends another wish, so she doesn’t have to kill someone, and at first it seems like her wish came true in a good way. The man is already dead, and so she tells the group that she killed him. Yet this becomes a huge issue once the truth comes out, as the boys accuse her of lying and the gang ends up killing Morro while hunting them down. Her third and perhaps most troubling wish is to erase Shine’s scar, and it technically works. Right after she draws an X on his cheek, he is shot in the face and dies. His ghost, however, no longer has the scar (or so it seems under his hoodie), as he has moved beyond the trauma it represented. Estrella wishes work, but they arrive through trauma. Because she lives in such a frightening and horror-based world, the chalk interprets her wishes as though she was in a horror movie. It takes the trauma inside her and projects it onto the fairy tale ‘wish’ trope, thus corrupting and blending it with the horror genre.

Although Estrella’s wishes are horrifying, the film still has fantasy laden moments. For instance, Estrella brings the group to a filthy and abandoned mansion that has these fantastic rooms, like an entire theater, a room filled with soccer balls, and a few castle staircases and towers. The first room they enter has a pond made from an old crater, filled with koi fish. Besides, we see a broken aquarium, as though the koi fish escaped their prison and are free, just like Shine’s tiger story. Of course, they are not actually free, they are just not in the aquarium anymore. It is unclear how the fish are thriving in this isolated dirty pond, without food. The fish’s existence in this strange place is fantastical, an example of life within decay. I mention this because the film isn’t just horror or fantasy, it features equal amounts of each. I would even say that the film presents moments, characters, and images while asking us to read them through multiple lens at the same time. To read the tiger using Shine and Estrella’s stories. To read the fish in a fantastic and horror filled way. It wants us to appreciate the wonder of fish surviving in such a place while also asking us to consider what happened to the people who lived in this house and why the aquarium broke in the first place.

“When the Things From Outside Come to Get Us”

When Estrella sees a body covered in a carpet on the street, her narration notes, “We forget who we are when the things from outside come to get us”, and I think that is the most profound statement about the film. Somehow, within all this violence and corruption, stories continue and change. They incorporate this violence to survive, they adapt. People often suggest that stories tell us who we are, both as individuals and as a culture. This film shows something a little different, as its children are totally dislocated from their families and cultures. They make their own surrogate families, but in the process of that, they forget who they once were. At the very least, they change who they were, they transform themselves into Princes and warriors and refashion new fairy tales considering the things coming to get them. They have forgotten who they were because they had to change, as did their stories. Wishes become sinister, tigers become unreal, fairies become the undead. They behave in a similar way, with a similar logic, but they are warped. That is also true of the children’s lives, as there are still buildings and people, but the buildings are decayed, and the people want to kill them.

The film’s title sequence highlights that children are not included in death toll numbers, and that is hard to estimate just how much damage has occurred because of the ongoing war. One way the children in the film deal with erasure, of themselves and of this environment, is by graffitiing. Shine graffiti a family portrait of himself and the other boys a few times in the film, and of the tiger. He also names the boys in these portraits, as though he is giving them back a visible identity, meaning, and power. When Morro is killed, Shine graffiti the group saying goodbye to their friend, waving and crying. It is a brutal image, especially as we have just seen Morro’s body. Defining his friends through stories and images is the only way Shine can cope with Morro’s erasure. But, as the film goes on to suggest, things and people have a habit of returning and haunting the world which abused them.

The Two Pans

It is impossible to talk about this film without mentioning its relationship to two Pan works: Pan’s Labyrinth and Peter Pan. I first heard about Issa López’s film from a Guillermo del Toro review, as he called the film innovative and compassionate. That immediately put Pan’s Labyrinth in my head while watching the film, as the two work well off one another. Pan’s Labyrinth takes place in the past, in 1944 Francoist Spain, but it also uses this blend of fantasy and horror to make sense of seemingly random violence. As well, it shares a few plot events and themes, as both Ofelia and Estrella receive ‘magical’ chalk, both see uterus shaped blood in scenes about their mother, and both are fixated with fairy tales. Likewise, each are visited by insect-like fairies, as Estrella sees a strange fly on the floor when her teacher gives her the chalk, and later sees a small dragon coming out of the stolen cellphone. Together, Pan’s Labyrinth and Tigers Are Not Afraid are commentaries on childhood trauma, specifically trauma on an invisible generation who are not technically involved in war but are still caught up in it.

Because I was thinking about Pan’s Labyrinth, I read López’s film in a rather grim way. With Shine dead, and the other boys missing, Estrella walks past a tiger to open a large door, behind which is a giant sunny meadow. One could read this as a metaphor for hope or rebirth, maybe even heaven. Much like the ambiguous paradise we see in Pan’s Labyrinth, it feels like Estrella is dead, or will most likely die in this dangerous city. The word ‘pan’ does translate to panic and chaos, which really summarizes the world Estrella walks back into. That said, I think this ending is meant to be read multiple ways simultaneously – literal, metaphoric, and fantastic. It could be an actual meadow, and the tiger could have escaped from someone’s zoo. Or it could be a metaphor for Estrella’s new-found safety and closure. The film ends shortly after Estrella receives her mother’s bracelet, which signals that she has grown up and is perhaps more capable and mature, although that is left ambiguous. The bracelet is covered with small birds, suggesting that Estrella may also be able to fly away to some freedom. We could also read this meadow as some fantastic heaven that Estrella escapes to, not a literal escape. All these readings could be true, and so each of them coexist. I think this extends to the rest of the film as well, as it is never just a fantasy, horror, or metaphorical film. It takes account of reality while mixing it with fairy tale and horror tropes, and so all three of these things work together. To say that this film uses fairy tales to deal with trauma is therefore not enough. Fairy tales use trauma to understand their own tropes just as much as trauma uses fairy tales to understand itself. Same goes with horror. These things exist simultaneously in Tigers Are Not Afraid, and that is also true of Pan’s Labyrinth. I ended up writing my thesis on this specific blend in Pan’s Labyrinth, so I will not get into it here. Instead, I want to move on to the film’s most predominant reference: Peter Pan.

“All children, except one, grow up.” (J. M. Barrie)

I would argue that Tigers Are Not Afraid is a rather direct adaptation of Peter Pan, and I think it’s useful to think of the film as an adaptation. The film’s original title was Vuelven, which translates to ‘the return’, which could refer to the dead coming back to life for vengeance. The dead are everywhere in the film, even when they are not seen. The entire concept of a ghost town implies that there are ghosts, beings that are as intrinsic to the city as cement. While the dead do return in the film, something else also returns in a frightening way: these older fairy tales like Peter Pan. For arguments sake, I am suggesting that Peter Pan is a fairy tale, as it has multiple cinematic adaptations, features a fairy, and is public domain. Tigers Are Not Afraid incorporates Peter Pan but it also traumatizes the work, just like its children. It features a Lost Boys crew, a Neverland (where nothing makes sense and there is no adult supervision), and a Wendy figure, one who has a difficult relationship with Peter (Shine) and becomes the group’s mother after running away from home. We also get a Captain Hook, as Chino threatens the children and is driven by noise, even though it’s a cellphone ringtone instead of a clock, and he walks towards the sound rather than away.

One of the morals in Peter Pan is that you eventually must grow up, and that you can’t run away from adulthood. Peter, however, never grows up, and the boys in Tigers Are Not Afraid never have the chance to. Although none of its characters mention Peter Pan, he is everywhere in the film, like any other dead figure. Just as the film features several dead characters, it also uses these genres as though they were dead and haunting the children. They return and they repeat themselves in new traumatic shapes.