Tiger Stripes: a ferocious Malaysian pre-teen horror

Amanda Nell Eu’s inventive debut about a young girl’s ‘monstrous’ transformation belongs to a proud lineage of both Malaysian folklore and coming-of-age films that externalise the onset of female puberty.

15 May 2024

By Simran Hans

Zafreen Zairizal as Zaffan in Tiger Stripes (2023)
Sight and Sound

In a school bathroom, 12-year-old Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal) grins at the camera before launching into an exuberant, well-rehearsed dance routine. Whoops of encouragement can be heard in the background as she tears off her headscarf and hijab. The film abruptly cuts to a title card as Zaffan prepares to flash her bra. “Where did you get that?” asks her disapproving friend Farah (Deena Ezral). Zaffan smirks, exposing one of its straps. “Wanna try it?” she says.

Malaysian-British filmmaker Amanda Nell Eu sets up her protagonist as both a rebel and a child. The bra is a grown woman’s, donned in a game of dress-up; the dance in service of a pre-teen’s TikTok. Best friends Zaffan, Farah and Mariam (Piqa) play with stickers and miaow at each other, splashing in the streams they pass on their way home from school. When Zaffan is the first in her class to get her period, then, it’s a shock. But in Nell Eu’s playful feature debut, more troubling bodily changes lie ahead. 

Tiger Stripes belongs to a lineage of coming-of-age films that externalise the onset of female puberty. Sissy Spacek’s Carrie, in Brian De Palma’s 1976 film, develops telekinesis; the teen girl at the centre of Ginger Snaps (2000) becomes a werewolf; in the Pixar animated film Turning Red (2022), the protagonist’s out-of-control hormones transform her into an angry, oversized panda. In Tiger Stripes, Zaffan begins to sprout whiskers, claws and eventually a tail – changes in her body that, at least initially, appear to be triggered by shame.

When Zaffan is discreetly excused from daily prayers, the sneering Farah tells her the whole school knows why (a response that is met with a prompt backpack to the face). She is warned of wild women whose menstrual cycles send them fleeing to the jungle, who smell, as Farah puts it, “rotten like the fish market”. In the privacy of her home, the pouty, defiant Zaffan attempts to wash the blood out of a sanitary towel, placing it in the bin and then attempting to flush it down the toilet. Nell Eu positions the camera at a high angle in the corner of the bathroom, capturing her secret shame as though it were security footage.

Zafreen as Zairizal Zaffan, Deena Ezral as Farah, Piqa as Mariam in Tiger Stripes (2023)

Isolated from her friends, she’s plagued by night sweats and patches of psoriasis. Her hair falls out, and she’s unable to concentrate in class. When a strict teacher refuses to permit her to go to the toilet, her disobedient body breaks the rules anyway. A wide shot of a feral, screaming Zaffan in the jungle captures the vastness of her rage and power.

Zaffan’s impulsive, increasingly savage behaviour is presented as a natural evolutionary response. She snarls in the face of bullies and squeezes a frog to death with her bare hands. Nell Eu mitigates this by keeping the acts of violence mostly off screen, shooting the back of Zaffan’s head, or cutting to the aftermath instead. Eventually, Zaffan stops resisting the change.

Zaffan’s school is nestled in the rainforest, lush green topiary flanking the building’s blue corrugated roof. It’s against this hyperreal, fairytale backdrop that Nell Eu begins to play with Malaysia’s folklore, interpolating some of its myths, and emphasising their feminist potential. Zaffan’s glowing eyes and claws align her with the fabled ‘pontianak’, a vengeful female spirit-creature whose reproductive capabilities have caused her downfall (women become pontianaks after dying in childbirth). Both Zaffan and the pontianak are feared outcasts who disrupt social norms.

Cymbals crash unsubtly as whiskers emerge from Zaffan’s cheek, and when she scales a tree to capture a squirrel, there’s a juddering stop-motion quality to her movements. Perhaps Zaffan’s tail is not entirely convincing either, but it’s not a problem. The lo-fi special effects feel like a deliberate throwback to the monster cinema popular in Singapore and Malaysia in the 1950s. Their handmade goofiness lifts a film that is surreal and heightened rather than scary. So does Nell Eu’s sense of humour, which playfully jabs at today’s shamans. An exorcist (Shaheizy Sam) is called on by the community to ‘save’ Zaffan and, like an Instagram influencer, he sets up a tripod and a ring light nearby, livestreaming the act to his followers.

In the film’s final scene, the transformed, liberated Zaffan reprises the dance routine she performed at the start. Her hair flies wildly behind her, tail in full view. Zaffan has earned her stripes, and with them her freedom, too.

 ► Tiger Stripes is in UK cinemas from 17 May.

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