Tiger Stripes seen at the BFI London Film Festival 2023
Tiger Stripes opens with a diptych of scenes. In the first, we see 12-year-old Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal) in close-up, panting heavily as she stares into the camera with barely contained defiance, even aggression, like a trapped, truculent animal. In the second, set a little earlier, we see her with friends Mariam (Piqa) and Farah (Deena Ezral) in the school toilets, as she strips down from her prim school uniform – a hijab and modest robe – to tank top and her first bra beneath, and dances with joyous abandon to electronic pop.
Preadolescent and in her final year of primary school, Zaffan is a rebel, desperate to escape the constraints of propriety placed upon women in her rural Malaysian community. For she fills her notebook with lewd sketches of sexual congress, and would prefer to diverge from the road before her, and to frolic and splash in the jungle with her friends – even if there are reports of tigers at large. When Zaffan gets her period – the first in her year to do so – her menarche is accompanied by other changes: itchy rashes all over her body, pustules on her face, hair and nail loss, a rank smell and a very short temper.
Ostracised by her friends and irritated by her parents (June Lojong, Khairunazwan Rodzy), Zaffan is being transformed not just into a young woman, but into a monster, wild and out of control. Meanwhile her mere presence at school gradually synchronises the other girls into crazed convulsions. This outbreak of manic maenadism draws to town a celebrity exorcist (Shaheizy Sam) who, in all his preening, performative patriarchy, insists upon taming the beast among these young women. Yet those who make an enemy of Zaffan risk getting their head bitten off, maybe even more than metaphorically. Meanwhile the girls who spurned Zaffan for her emerging differences now find themselves playing catch-up, and wanting the freedom that she has.
This pink-tinted feature debut from writer/director Amanda Nell Eu is a vibrant, often very funny coming-of-age story, in which, as in John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps (2000) and Domee Shi’s Turning Red (2022), all the horrors of puberty play out in the language of a creature feature based in body horror. There are also hints of Carol Morley’s The Falling (2014) here, as the spread of pubescence through the schoolgirls is figured as a kind of mass psychogenic disorder.
The tone is always light, the monster effects are endearingly cheap and goofy, the addresses given by the head teacher (Fatimah Abu Bakar) to the school’s assembled pupils give surreal expression to youthful anxieties about the future, and the exorcist is lampooned as an attention-seeking, social media-savvy clown. Yet even as Eu casually breaks all manner of taboos in transforming girls’ everyday (or at least everymonth) experiences into bloody genre fare, she is also capturing the growing pains of female oppression, and the dancing joys of women’s liberation. For in the end, the body that has so frightened and shamed Zaffan is embraced as a strength rather than a curse, central to her new, feral identity.
strap: In Amanda Nell Eu’s vibrant feature debut, menarche is also monstrous metamorphosis into a wilder, freer femininity
© Anton Bitel