Amanda Nell Eu’s feature film debut Tiger stripes is full of vivid scenes of contemporary girlhood. The film, which won best feature at Cannes Critics Week 2023 and is Malaysia’s Oscar entry, opens with a giggling trio recording a dance routine. Anyone familiar with TikTok dance challenges will recognize the pattern of these videos. An offscreen voice asks, “Okay, ready?” A young girl beams into the camera as she shakes her hips, moves her wrists, and twists. Their rhythm matches the bumpy cadence of the electronic dance piece playing in the background. Another friend, also off camera, 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 the classroom day with brief bathroom conventions. In this room, a private restroom for the older students at their school, the girls record their videos, gossip, mock their teachers, and negotiate the terms of their friendship. When Zaffan gets her period before her friends, the event upsets the group’s delicate balance. Suddenly she is an outsider. A person that her friends can no longer identify with.
A welcome addition to the body horror genre.
Pour: Zafreen Zairizal, Deena Ezral, Piqa, Shareizy Sam, Jun Lojong, Khairunazwan Rodzy, Fatimah Abu Bakar
Director-screenwriter: Amanda Nell Eu
1 hour 35 minutes
Girlhood drama is familiar cinematic territory, even if it may attract a smaller audience Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret or You’re not invited to my bat mitzvah like this, Tiger stripes is a welcome addition to the package. Eu uses body horror elements and Southeast Asian folklore to portray puberty as a nightmare experience. It’s an imaginative take on a familiar concept, one that – like Michelle Garza Cervera’s Huesera and Zarrar Khans In flames – uses ghosts and blood to combat the constraints society places on girls and women.
Zaffan’s exclusion takes place slowly and becomes more and more dangerous. The action begins when she wakes up in the middle of the night to find her sheets covered in blood. The confirmation that her period is coming shocks the 12-year-old. She can no longer attend church services with her friends and keeping herself “clean” becomes an obsession. There are rumors about what happens to women whose menstrual hygiene is not up to par. According to legend, they become wild creatures who are forced out of normal life.
Tiger stripes‘ Premise is clever. Eu uses Zaffan’s adolescence to question what it means to be “normal” and to consider who makes the rules these girls must follow. But the script occasionally veers into confusing territory, particularly when our protagonist’s struggle with her changing body takes stranger turns. Zaffan’s period is followed by a strange rash on her hands, hair growing on her back and also pimples. These are the signs of getting older. Other changes—for example, the texture and size of her hands—suggest a more feline metamorphosis. Eu deftly blurs the lines around when and how these transformations occur, but the narrative also raises the question of why this happens to Zaffan in particular. The connection between cultural folklore and Zaffan’s own journey is not always clear.
Still, Eu is a talented director with admirable ambition. The film’s twists and turns demonstrate the breadth of her vision and the depth of her thematic interests. Working with DP Jimmy Gimferrer, Eu brings a warm color palette and soft glow to her film. Great attention is paid to highlighting the delicate nature of Zaffan, Miriam and Farah’s surroundings by painting the school buildings and the coniferous forests surrounding the community with bright colors.
Beneath this fairytale aesthetic lies a structural decay that plagues these girls. After Farah and Miriam found out about Zaffan’s period, they threw their friend aside. Her logic is based on society’s vague rules, and through her interactions, Eu shows how misogyny influences judgments from a young age. The director brings out great performances from the young actresses, whose friendship feels genuine from the start. The authenticity of their relationship makes witnessing the group’s dissolution all the more painful. The actors hit the nail on the head Mean Girls-like dynamic that they eventually fall into.
Eu plays with old-fashioned special effects and makeup to bring out the horrific elements of Zaffan’s isolation and transformation. Glowing eyes, hunger for blood and other gruesome developments give the story a boost. The film conveys a subtle kind of terror by incorporating discomfort. But there is also a bit of subversion. Even though Zaffan changes, she’s still a girl, and Eu reminds us of that through some clever interludes and humorous set pieces that I won’t ruin here. Zairizal demonstrates impressive control, making it hard to believe this is her first film role.
All of these strengths create desire Tiger stripes had a narrower narrative scope. Eu tries diligently to cover as much as possible, but less might have been more here. The power and true horror of Tiger stripes lie in its simplest moments, when the film forces us to confront the truth that it is our own obsession with conformity that makes growing up seem like a nightmare.
Production companies: Akanga Film Productions, Flash Forward Entertainment, Ghost Grrrl Pictures, KawanKawan Fil, PRPL, Still Moving, Weydemann Bros.
Cast: Zafreen Zairizal, Deena Ezral, Piqa, Shareizy 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
Camera operator: Jimmy Gimferrer
Production Designer: Sharon Chin
Costume designer: Sharon Chin
Editor: Carlo Francisco Manatad
Music: Gabber Moduus Operandi
Casting Director: Audrie Yeo
Distribution: Films Boutique
1 hour 35 minutes