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Mandy (Sydney Underground Film Festival)

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In Panos Cosmatos’ 2010 Sci-Fi horror Beyond the Black Rainbow, the year 1983 symbolically loomed large as the setting for that film and its stylistic inspiration. For Panos (whose father George P. Cosmatos directed Cobra, Rambo: First Blood Part II & Tombstone) it is the year he was first exposed to the cluttered shelves of his local VHS rental store and the delights that lay within.

Panos’ Swedish mother, Birgitta Ljungberg-Cosmatos, was a sculptor and visual artist and, by his own admission, he’s heavily influenced by his parent’s artistic leanings, with his own cinematic style vacillating between the surreal arthouse and popcorn-fueled crowd-pleaser.

The film opens in an unnamed forest near the ‘Shadow Mountains’; it is 1983. Forestry worker Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) lives on the edge of the woods in a womb-like golden homestead with his lover Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough). One day, through pure happenstance, a roaming LSD cult catches sight of Mandy near her home and they target her for abduction. The cult leader, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) orders his Manson-family-esque minions to summon a group of disfigured, demonic homicidal bikers to aid them in their kidnapping and, ultimately, the motley Satanic group descend on Mandy and Red’s mountain-top home to enact their nefarious desires, leaving Red broken, traumatised and hell-bent on exacting a righteous, blood-lust fueled vengeance.

In Mandy Cosmatos draws on a similar visual palette to Beyond the Black Rainbow: drenched in ‘80s neon gloss, deep-focus anamorphic lensing with late, great composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (Sicario, Arrival) delivering a final stunning, sonic swansong of diegetic guitar riffs and epic dread-laden soundscapes.

Feeling like that awesome cosmic-horror VHS that you’ve just stumbled across on one of the lower shelves in the horror section, Mandy is akin to legendary fantasy artist Frank Frazetta drinking a litre of LSD, watching The Evil Dead and Hellraiser while listening to Obscured by Clouds by Pink Floyd, then painting an epic cosmic triptych. Finally, they’ve constructed a film that not only can contain Nicolas Cage (as Werner Herzog termed it … “unleashing the hog”) but also work as a curious fusion of modern-day horror tropes, the operatic tone of Wagner’s Ring cycle and epically primal and elemental cosmic dread. It’s a doozy.

 
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Believer (Korean Film Festival in Australia)

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An explosion at a drug manufacturing laboratory takes out an entire level of a drug syndicate’s management. In the wreckage, the police find a low-level syndicate member still alive. Arrested and detained by a special investigation team, he agrees to help them track down what remains of the syndicate’s leadership, particularly its anonymous leader “Mr Lee” – but can he be trusted?

If this all sounds a little familiar, it may be because you have seen Johnnie To’s 2013 Chinese film Drug War, of which Lee Hae-Young’s Believer is a South Korean remake. While the characters are all subtly re-imagined and the beat-by-beat narrative changed, at the end of the day the two films tell almost exactly the same story. As far as remakes go, it’s a smart one: Lee takes most of the elements from Drug War that worked best but finds room to localise and remix To’s work in the remaining scenes.

Cho Jin-woong plays Jo Won-ho, a tightly wound and vengeful narcotics detective. He has spent years on the trail of the mysterious Mr Lee, and when one of his best snitches is brutally murdered just to send him a message, he steps wildly out of control in a chase to track the elusive kingpin down. Cho plays the role with a brilliant intensity and more than a little brutality; he treads a thin line between being a hero the audience can support and an out-of-line abusive cop who deserves to be arrested himself.

When a drug laboratory is destroyed and a senior lieutenant to Mr Lee assassinated in front of him, Cho’s only hope is Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol): a junior member of the syndicate who agrees to help Cho’s squad when the laboratory explosion murders his mother and almost kills his dog. Ryu is stunning in the role. He finds an ambivalent path that makes it difficult for the audience to ever really trust Rak. He may be helping Cho. He may be protecting Lee. He may even be helping himself. The film does a remarkable job of keeping that ambiguity active and balanced through much of its two-hour running time.

The path to Mr Lee takes in a series of wildly inventive set pieces, all sourced and adapted from Johnnie To’s original film. To get a foot into the syndicate’s operations, Cho impersonates one of its lieutenants to make a deal with a dangerously unhinged Chinese client named Ha-Rim (Kim Joo-hyuk). Immediately afterwards he rushes to another hotel suite to make the same deal from the other side: masquerading as Ha-Rim to fool Mr Lee’s real lieutenant. The sequence boasts a bravura performance by Kim Joo-hyuk, who turns Ha-Rim into someone both amusing and repellent in equal measure. This was Kim’s final performance – he tragically died in a car accident last year before Believer had finished shooting – and he made it a hugely memorable one.

For fans of Drug War intrigued to see how a Korean remake shapes up, Believer is an engaging and satisfying take on strong material. For viewers that missed the story the first time around, Believer is a beautifully shot and paced action thriller. It boasts strong performances, inventive settings and characters, and bold, bloody storytelling. If you like Korean cinema, you’re going to love this one.

 
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Midnight Runners (Korean Film Festival in Australia)

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This brisk action-comedy sees two police trainees, Ki-Joon (Park Seo-Joon) and Hee-Yeol (Kang Ha-Neul), find themselves sucked into danger when they witness a kidnapping while on a rare night out in Seoul’s Gangnam nightclub district.

Director Joo-hwan Kim’s second film starts out rather like a Korean take on Lord and Miller’s 21 Jump Street, or a more chaste Police Academy, before taking a different tack, winding up in territory that is not a million miles away from Scorsese’s After Hours or Landis’s Into the Night, tracking our two game but bumbling student cops as they plunger deeper into a weird and neon-strobed side of Seoul in order to rescue a girl they witnessed getting dragged into a van.

The actual cops are no help – they’ve all been pulled onto a case involving the disappearance of a dignitary’s son -and cocksure, amiable Ki-Joon and bookish, neurotic Hee-Yeol know, thanks to a rather obviously placed classroom scene, that they only have seven hours to find the victim before she’s likely killed by her captors. And so we’re off.

Midnight Runners moves along at an impressive clip, and the strong chemistry between the two leads means it’s always entertaining even when a few cultural references and assumptions might go sailing over the heads of non-Korean viewers. The action is well-staged and the tone is generally light and nimble – except when it isn’t. It’s a bit jarring to find ourselves suddenly delving into the world of human trafficking and the misogynistic violence that accompanies it when we’ve been hanging out with a matched set of charming goofballs up until that point, and the sudden shift might result in some cognitive dissonance for audience members. Still, these are the villains of the piece we’re talking about, and when justice is rained upon them in increasingly frequent action beats as the movie progresses, it’s exhilarating and cathartic in equal measure.

There’s not much to differentiate Midnight Runners from any one of a dozen similar buddy action comedies you could name, apart from quality -it’s a particularly strong example of the breed. The closing credits promise a sequel, and that would be more than welcome.

 

 

 
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A Haunting Hitchhike (Korean Film Festival in Australia)

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With her father (Kim Hak Seon) dying of cancer, 16 year old Jeong-ae (Noh Jung-eui) sets off to find her mother. Instead, she forms a connection with a policeman, Kim Hyung-woong (Park Hee-soon), who may be the biological father of her school friend, Hyo-jun (Go-eun Kim). As she struggles to care for her father, who has given up on treatment and advises her that life is better when it is lived without hope, Jeong-ae gets drawn into the cop’s life, and is presented with two possible paths in life: the dour fatalism presented by her father, and the glimmer of hope inherent in Kim.

A Haunting Hitchhike is an odd but, appropriately enough, haunting viewing experience. It takes its time to get where it’s going, being more of a character study than a plot-driven piece. The nominal “rules” of narrative form are barely paid lip service, the film pivoting from scene to scene in unexpected directions – at first we’re looking at a teen coming-of-age drama; then, for a brief couple of scenes, we’re in thriller territory, as Jeong-ae and Hyo-jun evade an attempted kidnapping; we settle into mystery mode as Jeong-ae tries to figure out if Hyung-woong really is Hyo-jun’s father, before circling back around to coming-of-age territory again.

It’s all carried out in a fairly understated manner by debut writer and director Heejae Jeong, and the result is that, if you’re beholden to the comforts of traditional dramatic narrative, A Haunting Hitchhike could be a somewhat opaque and frustrating affair. It’s not experimental as such, it just drifts along at its own pace. What rescues it is a finely tuned sense of melancholy, and some very strong performances, especially Noh Jung Eui’s nuanced turn as Jeong-ae.

 
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Cocote (Melbourne International Film Festival)

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Dominican Republic drama Cocote hones-in on Alberto (Vincent Santos), an Evangelical Christian gardener who is forced back from the Dominican Republic to his home town, to honour the death of his father.

As it becomes clear to Alberto that the death wasn’t pure accident, the faithful man is faced with his family’s wishes for him to revenge his father’s murder – a ritualistic practice.

Stifled by the dilemma of whether to act or not, the circumstances force Alberto to face his beliefs.

It is a familiar story, a tale of revenge, and how far will a man go to defend his family?

But what separates this take from others, and elevates it to another level, is the form it is told in; the devices, looks and shapes it plays with. On the surface a simple parable of virtues, director Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias mixes divergent aesthetics; different film stocks, aspect ratios, black and white, colour, documentary footage, and music pieces to create a cohesive whole – a visual, ethnographic portrait of a town consumed by corruption as much as anything else.

A 15-minute argument at a river, filmed beautifully in wide shot, is contrasted against reality TV footage of local residents arguing over an animal, which is said to be holy.

A 10-minute scene of the protagonist, and a corrupt police officer arguing at a bar, is framed wide, jarringly, with only a minor character in focus.

Whilst such techniques may be challenging, and put viewers at arm’s length, de Los Santos Arias largely uses them successfully to portray the distances between those in the small town. The separation is something you feel.

Cocote is a film which makes no attempts to conform to expectations; a singular, challenging take on faith and revenge.

 
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We The Animals

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The animals in We The Animals aren’t quite that – they’re rambunctious brothers Manny, Joel and Jonah. Three Puerto Rican boys living in a decrepit house in Upstate New York, whose mixed-marriage parents are more interested in arguing with each other than worrying about their offspring.

This leaves the three siblings to fend for themselves – steal food, argue, fight, grow up. All as they watch their father (Raul Castillo) beat their mother (Sheila Vand), leave her, and lose his job – as the fabric of their childhood slowly unravels, and they find themselves gradually going separate ways.

Based on the 2011 novel by American fiction author Justin Torres, the film, which won the Sundance NEXT Innovator Award, has exciting moments. A scene of the three kids, secretly watching their parents through a door cuts to the essence of childhood, which nothing can rupture.

What audiences witness as the film transpires, is the ending of that innocence, as the reality of the world starts to become more apparent to the three boys.

Despite some truly unique sequences, We The Animals is largely uneven. The first half of the film is so frustratingly devoid of action, it feels like purely a set up to the second half.

Directed by documentary maker Jeremiah Zagar (In A Dream, Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart) in his narrative feature debut, the film has a dreamy, handheld quality.

Shots from the perspective of the kids’ eyes are punctuated by handheld sketches and drawings which pour over the screen, giving the film a naturalistic feel.

Much of this comes from the dynamic, almost home video recording shots of cinematographer Zak Mulligan (Bleeding Heart), soundtracked to the music of indie act The Books, and its founder Nick Zammuto, who composes the score.

Interesting on occasion but unfortunately mostly inconsistent, We The Animals is a flawed, bumpy contemplation on childhood and growing up.

 
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Under the Cover of Cloud (Melbourne International Film Festival)

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Test cricket is not always fast, quick or simple. Neither is returning to your home in Hobart. And neither is deciding what to do with the rest of your life. This is the possible line of thinking that may have engendered Ted Wilson’s impressive feature directing debut Under the Cover of Cloud.

Droll Ted Wilson has just lost his job writing a column for a travel magazine in Melbourne. A loyal Tasmanian and mad cricketing enthusiast, he cruises back to Hobart to visit his family, take in some bands, and try to decide what to do next; top of the list is to meet his hero David Boon, and to write a book about cricket that is more ‘literary’ than statistical.

This, in a nutshell, is the story. The film does not have a traditional plot. It is through minutes of talking endlessly about trees with his mother, low-key smiles and family meals, that his eternal light ‘Boonie’ presents himself almost by coincidence, without explanation. This allows Ted the intervention he was seeking. Although Ted revels in meeting his cricketing idol, the meeting doesn’t transform him. He goes back to Melbourne.

What is impressive about this first effort from Wilson is that so much is wrangled in so little, and it is in large swathes, a film about family, with the director’s actual family mostly making up the cast. Plot doesn’t matter.

The film was shot in 2016 with no backing or funding, with Wilson financing the entire film himself, using his own relatives, whittling down the running time from an original 15 hours. The territory is autobiographical, Cassavetes-like.

Working against the grain of rapidly-edited films and plot-driven stories, this is more about interactions, smiles, gentle exchanges. There are no plot twists. No plot.

One of the largest scenes is a conversation between Wilson and his mother, on how to deal with a problematic tree, among other subjects.

Wilson, who has cited Jarmusch and Ozu as references, and toyed with making the film similar in rhythm to a Test Cricket match, stated that the goal was to make an Australian film about people rather than landscapes. Here, he has made a meditation that is slow but steady; it’s about ambling along, surprising encounters, and family lunches.

Languidly paced, self-aware, and charming, like an engrossing Test Match even; Under the Cover of Cloud is a measured delight.

 

 
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Acute Misfortune (Melbourne International Film Festival)

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Acute Misfortune tells the story of the later years of Archibald-Prize winning artist Adam Cullen (Daniel Henshall, Snowtown, The Babadook), as chronicled by reporter Erik Jensen (Toby Wallace).

Cullen’s works have represented Australia all over the world. At 42 years old, he was the subject of a comprehensive career retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2008 – 4 years before his death in 2012.

Jensen was not yet 16 when he first got into journalism, going on to become the youngest news journalist to join the Sydney Morning Herald in two decades in 2007.

Based on his penned account, Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen, the film picks up in 2008, when the 19 year-old is invited to interview the divisive Cullen at his house in the Blue Mountains. Off that article, Cullen handpicked the fresh-faced aspirant to write his life story for a book commissioned by publisher Thames and Hudson – a deal, it turned out, never existed, one that was entirely made up by Cullen. In spite of the fact it became clear no manuscript was commissioned, Jensen spent four years on and off writing the book.

Cullen, depicted in the film, is a man who compares himself to Ned Kelly, and idolises David Wenham’s iconic performance of a Western Sydney suburbs hood in the 1998 film The Boys. (One of Cullen’s most famous pieces is a painting of Wenham.)

Cullen sits in his lounge chair, watching Wenham’s thug call himself a God, uttering “Wenho, Wenho, Wenho”, as Wenham grimly tars a cigarette on the car window. (The Boys producer Robert Connolly is heavily involved with Acute Misfortune.)

The comparison is apt. Here is another figure who lives by his own rules and vices.

Jensen is lured into the artist’s vacuum, moulded and exposed to Cullen’s literal and figurative nakedness. There is a scene where the painter arrives home at 1am, standing outside Jensen’s room, nude.

What follows is a strange, intense, dangerous relationship between the two, bordering on obsession; as the bright-eyed correspondent experiences skinned rabbits, drugs, being shot… Jensen is bruised, beaten up, pushed off a horse, continually threatened with his life – yet still, he sticks around Cullen’s house to get the story.

The performances are notable. Daniel Henshall, in particular, gives a lived-in portrayal, completely exhibiting madness and capriciousness.

The compositions of the film are arresting. Figures enter the frame, and dissipate. The photography by cinematographers Stefan Duscio and Germain McMicking ratchets up intensity. Shots of the Blue Mountains, where Cullen resided, vividly enhance the backdrop to the madness. Many scenes capture simple shapes, dots, figures.

Thomas M. Wright, an acclaimed actor (Top Of The Lake, The Bridge, Sweet Country), and co-founder of stage company The Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm, makes an impressive feature directing debut with the film. Not a standard, conventional biopic, Wright wisely chooses a poetic approach, interpreting moments and elements rather than taking a traditional route. It is more of a mosaic. The result is all the more fitting.

Written in collaboration by author Jensen and Wright, this is a film that, like The Boys, is not a pretty or beautiful portrait. Much of Adam Cullen’s behaviour is repulsive, and there are scenes of violence. But the way the ugliness is captured is striking, matching Cullen’s art.

A thought-provoking work executed powerfully, Acute Misfortune is an artistic, no holds barred depiction of madness.

 

 
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Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (Melbourne International Film Festival)

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Wheelchair-bound, alcoholic Felix Crabtree (Michael Lake) and his flighty, religiously-fixated sister, Betty (Rhys Davis, credited as Melissa Davis) find their quiet, rather mournful lives disrupted when a stranger (Norman Boyd, credited as The Norm) appears at their rundown farmhouse on the edge of a blistering yellow desert. Calling himself “Smith”, the black-clad interloper keeps his origins to himself. Betty thinks he might be a demon. Smith jokes – or does he? – about being able to fly – quite a coincidence, as Felix is obsessed with building a glider to clear the mountains to the north and fly off to a new life. For Betty, change is evil. Is Smith?

For years now, Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds has been all but a lost film. The first feature by Alex Proyas (The Crow, Dark City), it was filmed on 16mm around Broken Hill in the same period Proyas was shooting the music video for INXS’ “Kiss the Dirt”, and used mostly the same crew, to boot. After an extremely truncated limited theatrical run and a stint on the festival circuit, it shuffled onto VHS rental and quickly dipped below the radar of all but the most dedicated followers of Australian genre fare, enjoying a brief resurgence of notoriety after The Crow brought Proyas to prominence, sending film students and goth kids alike off to scour the Cult section of their local video library in hopes of tracking it down.

Even in the digital age, Spirits has remained a rare beast, with extremely dodgy VHS rips on the usual streaming sites being the only spoor. That’s all changed now, though, with the nigh-legendary film recently getting a painstaking 2K restoration and screening at MIFF before getting a home release through Umbrella’s Beyond Genres specialty label.

It’s a fascinating viewing experience. A low budget post-apocalyptic fable, Spirits of the Air owes more to Alejandro Jodorowsky than it does to George Miller. Proyas’s After the End scenario is sketched in strikingly off-kilter visuals and drenched in dense, often impenetrable symbolism (the crucifixes that festoon the Crabtree house are easy enough to parse; the line of ’50s-era convertibles half buried nose-down in the sand, less so). The narrative is elliptical, the performances opaque. The film is largely a three-hander, and Proyas draws heightened, theatrical turns from his actors, building on-screen characters that are more like archetypes from an unfamiliar pantheon rather than psychologically real people. That might test some viewers – it’s hard to find a point of identification when one character’s mad, another’s an enigma, and the third either manic or drunk.

However, counterpoint: it is so goddamn beautiful, it doesn’t really matter. It’s pretty pat these days to note that Proyas is one of Australian cinema’s most gifted visual stylists, but if nothing else it’s certainly handy to have a decent copy of Spirits of the Air on hand to point at and note that, having honed his craft in music videos, Proyas’ prodigious chops were clearly evident right out of the gate. Working with cinematographer David Knaus and production designer Sean Callinan, Proyas gives us a wondrous and wonderfully dreamlike apocalyptic landscape – a deliberately weird interstitial space, on the edge of the desert, on the dividing line between land and sky, and perhaps life and death (there’s a lot of a death imagery here – you can’t throw a rock without hitting some symbol of the infinite void in Spirits of the Air). That it was pulled together on the cheap with nothing but love, guts, and skill is evident even in the squared-off 16mm frame, but only makes it all the more arresting; the film feels like a handcrafted afterlife, with not a prop, a rock, or a swatch of costuming out of place or not deliberately chosen.

The visuals are perfectly complimented by Peter Miller’s gorgeous score, which combines Morricone-esque flourishes with haunting vocals and minimalist electronica to create a suitably haunting soundscape to underpin Proyas’ parable.

The film’s principal flaw is that it is so dramatically inert; the audience is directed to look at objects rather than experience action, and this rather stately, occasionally lethargic pacing can be trying at times, even when the milieu is so jaw-droppingly stunning. It’s possible that, because of that, for modern audiences, Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds will remain a curio, formally interesting but unengaging. However, if your interests lie in the history of Australian film, the cinema of the fantastic, the career or Alex Proyas, or all three, this is an indispensable work, and one we’ve been awaiting for far too long.

 
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Tigers Are Not Afraid (Melbourne International Film Festival)

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11 year-old Mexican Estrella (Paola Lara) finds herself living on the street when her mother is kidnapped by the terrifying Huascas criminal gang. She is soon taken in by a gang of homeless young boys, but their lives come into peril when one of the boys impulsively steals a gangster’s mobile telephone and handgun. With the Huascas now hunting the children down, Estrella’s only hope may be her mother’s ghostly voice whispering in her ear.

The bleak lives of children orphaned by Mexican gangs collide with supernatural horror in Issa López’s confident and boldly directed Tigers Are Not Afraid. The film has already gathered widespread acclaim at film festivals around the world, as well as comparisons between López and fellow Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. It’s an easy comparison to make: not only for their country of origin, but their manner of tackling human emotions via allegory. Here, the dozens of victims of a runaway criminal gang literally haunt the streets. The lives lost are visible, and they beg Estrella to avenge them. It is an uncertain haunting, however: are the ghosts real, or are they only in Estrella’s mind? Does she really have three wishes, or do her desires coincidentally align with real events? López plays her cards very close to her chest in answering that question.

Where López differs from Del Toro is in the much grittier and realistic world that the supernatural invades. Unlike Del Toro’s baroque environments and lyrical photography, López utilises a bleak and naturalistic aesthetic. Her ghosts are rotten cadavers. The environment is broken-down and unpopulated. It is a distinctive look that, when paired with the film’s urgent pace, makes Tigers Are Not Afraid a particularly original and effective slice of urban horror.

The representation of the dead is one of the film’s strongest assets. They are barely seen, most often represented as a soft voice and a thin stream of blood that follows Estrella along floors and walls. When they are more directly seen, they have a visceral impact. At the same time, some of the non-supernatural events provide the stronger horror. The gangsters mean business when tracking down the children, and not every child necessarily emerges safely by the film’s end.

López has found an exceptional juvenile cast for her film. As Estrella, Paola Lara delivers a superb protagonist and combines grit and vulnerability. The real highlight, however, is Juan Ramón López as “Shine”, the de facto leader of the abandoned children. Despite his young age, he shows off exceptional bravado in leading his friends. When Estrella joins the group, he is immediately resentful and makes certain she knows his feelings about her. It is a great performance, packed with resentment and a cocky front, and Ramón López is quite simply superb. Shine does not simply act as a leader either; he is effectively acting as father to his three younger friends – and particularly to the vulnerable Morro (Ney Arredondo), a traumatised four-year-old who wanders the streets tightly clutching a tiger soft toy. With Estrella’s arrival, the Peter Pan and Wendy comparisons become obvious.

Short, sharp and to the point, Tigers Are Not Afraid is an excellent work of supernatural horror with a distinctive setting and an uncompromising story. It is packed with powerful imagery. It does sensational work with a juvenile cast. It deserves to be seen by the widest audience possible.