While watching Vuelven (a.k.a. Tigers are Not Afraid), I wondered to myself, “Did Guillermo del Toro make this?” Nope, Issa López did, but del Toro has hailed Vuelven as one of the best Mexican films in recent years. You can find out if you agree with the Oscar-winning director of The Shape of Water, Pan’s Labyrinth and Pacific Rim on Friday or Saturday, when Vuelven rolls at the Frida Cinema in downtown Santa Ana.
To determine whether it is indeed one of the best from our southern neighbor, you will need other Mexican titles with which to compare Vuelven (Friday, 7 p.m.; Saturday, 9:30 p.m.). And you’re in luck because the horror-fantasy picture that has won multiple awards worldwide opens the Hola Mexico Film Fest, which runs entries daily through Thursday, Dec. 13.
It will be difficult to challenge writer/director López’s at times sad, funny, terrifying, compelling and visually stunning film, which begins with a title card in Spanish informing, “Since the beginning of the drug war in 2006, 160,000 have been killed and 53,000 have disappeared in Mexico. Entire areas of some cities are turning into ghost towns. There are no numbers for the children the dead and missing have left behind.”
Children left behind are the film’s focus. As they struggle to eat, sleep and survive, we learn that school is a welcome refuge, but drug-cartel violence makes places of learning as dangerous as campuses to the north with active-shooter visits.
Lying on a cold classroom floor, waiting for bullets to stop flying, is 10-year-old Estrella (Paola Lara), who tries to escape through fairy tales, much like Ofelia did in Pan’s Labyrinth. That’s complicated by horrors in the streets, ultraviolence on the television and the ghost of Estrella’s mother everywhere.
She seeks relief by joining a gang of orphan boys led by El Shine (Juan Ramón López), but brief moments in which the kids just get to be kids end abruptly when they mistakenly cross the local crime boss. The tension would seem manufactured had the filmmaker not managed to squeeze believable performances out of her young actors.
Writer/director Marcelo Tobar does the same with his older cast in Oso Polar (Polar Bear). Closeted gay man Heriberto (Humberto Busto, who resembles a Latino Giovanni Ribisi) uses his mother’s old station wagon to take two former classmates he has not seen for years to an elementary-school reunion in Mexico City. Along the way, we discover boozy single mom Flor (Veronica Toussaint) and slimy narcissist Trujillo (Cristian Magaloni) bullied Heriberto back in the day—and he now has more than ridesharing on his mind.
Oso Polar (Sunday, 7 p.m.) is the first Mexican film entirely shot on an iPhone, so those prone to queasiness from shaky cameras should be prepared to close your eyes during some scenes lest your dinner goes all Jackson Pollock on the Frida’s floor. Others may conclude those shots add to the grittiness of a disturbing tale.
The other Hola Mexico Film Fest movies, which were not previewed, are:
Los adioses (The Eternal Feminine). This bio-drama is on Mexican poet and author Rosario Castellanos, who is played as an adult by Karina Gidi. Director Natalia Beristáin picks up Castellanos’ story when she is a bright but introverted university student, which gives Gidi a solid character arch considering her subject is now one of Mexico’s most important literary figures. (Sat., 6:30 p.m., and followed by the fest’s opening reception.)
Sacúdete las Penas. Director/co-writer Andres Ibañez Diaz Infante’s bio-drama focuses on Pepe Frituras (Emmanuel Orenday), who went from the stage as Mexico City’s most famous dancer to the Palace of Lecumberri, the country’s most dangerous penitentiary. (Sun., 12:30 p.m.)
Camino a Marte (Road to Mars). Writer/director Humberto Hinojosa Ozcariz’s adventure-dramedy road picture also rolled at the most recent OC Film Fiesta. Emilia (Tessa Ia), who suffers from a terminal illness, embarks on a trip with her best friend, Violeta (Camila Sodi). Out on the road, they meet Mark (Luis Gerardo Méndez), who claims to be an extraterrestrial on a mission to destroy the planet. But the more time the three spend together, the more they question everything. (Sun., 3 p.m.)
Me gusta, pero me asusta (I Like, But It Scares Me). Award-winning writer/director Beto Gómez’s comedy collides the worlds of the descendant (Alejandro Speitzer) of one of the most influential (and shady) families in the state of Sinaloa and an eccentric dreamer (Minnie West) taking a sabbatical year on daddy’s dime to find her calling. (Mon., 7 p.m.)
La gran promesa (The Big Promise). From another award-winning filmmaker, Jorge Ramírez Suárez, comes an acclaimed drama about a war photographer (Juan Manuel Bernal) who kidnaps his newborn daughter to prevent her custody from falling into the wrong hands, sacrifices his citizenship and career by retreating to Europe after leaving the child in the care of close friends in Mexico, and, decades later, seeks a way home. (Tues., 7 p.m.)
Eres mi pasión (You’re My Passion). Director Anwar Safa’s bittersweet comedy is based on the successful Argentine film El fútbol o yo. A passionate soccer aficionado (Mauricio Isaac) reaches a crossroads that forces him to choose between his sports addiction and his family. (Wed., 7 p.m.)
¿Como matar a un esposo muerto? (Like Killing a Dead Husband). Joel Núñez Arocha and Conrado Martinez’s comedy was inspired by true events. A dedicated mother of two must destroy her ex-husband and his legacy after the womanizing businessman dies unexpectedly and leaves his fortune and the custody of his daughters to his brother. (Thurs., Dec. 13, 7 p.m.)
Hola Mexico Film Fest movies are presented in Spanish with English subtitles.
Hola Mexico Film Fest at the Frida Cinema, 305 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana; thefridacinema.org. Fri.-Thurs., Dec. 13. $7-$10 per film.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.