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Amanda Nell Eu’s feature debut Tiger Stripes is filled with vivid scenes of contemporary girlhood. The film, which won the prize for best feature at the 2023 Cannes Critics’ Week and is Malaysia’s Oscar entry, opens with a giggling trio recording a dance routine. Anyone familiar with the TikTok dance challenges will clock the pattern of these videos. An off-screen voice asks “Okay, ready?” A young girl beams at the camera as she shakes her hips, flicks her wrists and spins. Her rhythm matches the bumping cadence of the electronic dance track playing in the background. Another friend, also off-screen, cheers her on.
Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal), Miriam (Piqa) and Farah (Deena Ezral) are a trio of middle-school girls who break up the monotony of classroom days with brief bathroom conventions. In this space, a private lavatory for the older students in their school, the girls record their videos, gossip, mock their instructors and negotiate the terms of their friendship. When Zaffan gets her period before her friends, the event disrupts the delicate balance of the group. Suddenly, she is an outsider. A person her friends can no longer relate to.
Director-screenwriter: Amanda Nell Eu
1 hour 35 minutes
The drama of girlhood is familiar cinematic territory, and though it might garner a smaller audience than Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret or You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah, Tiger Stripes is a welcome addition to the pack. Eu uses body-horror tropes and Southeast Asian folklore to render puberty as a nightmare experience. It’s an imaginative take on a familiar concept, one that — like Michelle Garza Cervera’s Huesera and Zarrar Khan’s In Flames — uses ghosts and gore to tackle the constrictions society places on girls and women.
Zaffan’s ostracization is slow and increasingly perilous. The action kicks off when she wakes up in the middle of the night to find her sheets soaked with blood. Confirmation of her period’s arrival devastates the 12 year-old. She can no longer attend prayer services with her friends, and keeping herself “clean” becomes an object of obsession. There are rumors of what happens to women whose period hygiene isn’t up to par. Legend says they become wild things, forced outside of normal lives.
Tiger Stripes’ premise is smart. Eu uses Zaffan’s puberty to interrogate what it means to be “normal” and to consider who creates the rules these girls feel compelled to follow. But the screenplay occasionally veers into confusing territory, especially as our protagonist’s battle with her changing body takes stranger turns. Zaffan’s period is followed by a peculiar rash on her hands, hair growing from her back and pimples too. These are the marks of growing older. Other changes — the texture and size of her hands for example — signal a more feline metamorphosis. Eu cleverly blurs the lines of when and how these transformations occur, but the narrative also raises questions as to why this happens to Zaffan specifically. The connection between cultural folklore and Zaffan’s own journey isn’t always clear.
Still, Eu is a skilled director with admirable ambition, the film’s twists and turns demonstrating the scope of her vision and the depth of her thematic interests. Working with DP Jimmy Gimferrer, Eu casts her film in a warm color palette and mellow glow. Considerable attention is paid to highlighting the delicate nature of Zaffan, Miriam and Farah’s environment, with the bright paints splashed across the school buildings and the coniferous forests surrounding the community.
Beneath these fairytale aesthetics is a structural rot that plagues these girls. After learning about Zaffan’s period, Farah and Miriam cast their friend to the side. Their logic is founded by vague rules of society and, through their interactions, Eu shows how misogyny informs judgments from an early age. The director pulls great performances from the young actresses, whose friendship feels genuine from the start. The authenticity of their relationship makes it all the more painful to witness the group’s dissolution. The performers nail the Mean Girls-esque dynamic they eventually fall into.
Eu plays with old-school special effects and make-up to tease out the horrific elements of Zaffan’s isolation and transformation. Glowing eyes, an appetite for blood and other gruesome developments fuel the story’s momentum. The film delivers on a subtle kind of fright by building in uneasiness. But there’s also a bit of subversion. Even as Zaffan changes, she’s still a girl, and Eu reminds us of that through some clever interludes and humorous set pieces I won’t ruin here. Zairizal demonstrates an impressive command, which makes it hard to believe this is her first film role.
All these strengths make you wish that Tiger Stripes had a narrower narrative scope. Eu eagerly tries to cover as much ground as possible, but less might have been more here. The power and real horror of Tiger Stripes lie in its most straightforward moments, when the film forces us to confront the truth that it is our own obsession with conformity that makes growing up feel like a nightmare.
Cast: Zafreen Zairizal, Deena Ezral, Piqa, Shaheizy Sam, Jun Lojong, Khairunazwan Rodzy, Fatimah Abu Bakar
Director-screenwriter: Amanda Nell Eu
Producers: Yulia Evina Bhara, Fran Borgia, Fei Ling Foo, Ellen Havenith, Patrick Mao Huang, Juliette Lepoutre, Piere Menahem, Jonas Weydemann
Director of photography: Jimmy Gimferrer
Production designer: Sharon Chin
Costume designer: Sharon Chin
Editor: Carlo Francisco Manatad
Music: Gabber Moduus Operandi
Casting director: Audrie Yeo
Sales: Films Boutique
1 hour 35 minutes
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