In Tiger Stripes, Amanda Nell Eu’s debut feature, a trio of twelve-year-old girls contend with the sudden and inexplicable physical changes that occur inside one member of their group. Reactions range from surprise and sympathy to disgust and jealousy, frequently interspersed within the same incongruent frames. The elders in the girls’ village, similarly, coax and castigate the youths equally under an umbrella of conservative superstition. Strip away the bodily horror and mythological subtext, however, and what underpins this refreshing, if somewhat frustrating, work is a narrative of childhood and growing up whose register oscillates wildly between animated vibrancy and whimsical levity.
For twelve-year-old Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal), growing up has always meant some kind of uneasy negotiation between the various institutions that surround her. At her rural Malaysian school, a respect for authority is paramount in all interactions between staff and students, even as a streak of preteen rebellion peeks its head out from time to time. Within the larger societal context of patriarchal, tudung-clad religiosity, Zaffan’s clandestine TikTok dances in the school’s bathroom provide gleeful and temporary respite from a strident yet matter-of-fact way of life. That way of life is shared by Zaffan with her friends, Farah (Deena Ezral) and Mariam (Piqa), and is rather calm and uneventful — at least until the night when Zaffan gets her first period. Almost immediately afterward, the world around her changes: she’s excused from daily prayers, which her friends first envy her for, and then shun her because of; her senses become more attuned to the living beings around her, including possibly supernatural ones; and, when stranger symptoms begin to show, there’s little understanding for her predicament to be found in the wider community, much less acceptance.
Zaffan’s physical changes are compounded by a tantalizing blurring of the lines between the natural and supernatural worlds. There is a persistent, though sparse, presence of folkloric elements in the urban legends that are traded amongst the girls — and that preoccupation comes to fruition once Zaffan undergoes a gradual but pronounced metamorphosis into a tigrine hybrid of whiskers, claws, and tail. In fact, much of what’s natural here overlaps with the supernatural domain: the film’s lush cinematography, courtesy of Jimmy Gimferrer, underscores the impenetrable beauty of the surrounding jungle, which is unspoiled and untampered by rational civilization. But equally, civilization holds the supernatural’s proxy — here manifested as a wild and primal Zaffan — within its controlling sight, its regimental structures first enlisting parental authority, then the help of a self-proclaimed exorcist, to restrain what is otherwise unfamiliar to it.
The seamless blend of folklore and realism both hampers and distinguishes Tiger Stripes from a genre frequently ridiculed for its clumsy exaggerations of the former; think corny jump-scares expedited by woebegone pontianak spirits, which Eu defiantly resists in her measured and peripheral treatment of the locale’s spookier elements. While the film’s tonal ambiguity (a result of situating its POV as being through the girls’ playful eyes) lends itself more to the imaginative than the didactic, this also translates to a glaring absence of narrative momentum, leaving viewers waiting for the inevitable transformation without quite following the reasons behind it. Unlike more conventional body horror fare — such as Julia Ducournau’s cannibalistic Raw — Tiger Stripes boasts an even more impressionistic mélange of sequences, from smartphone medleys of bra tryouts and school bullying to implicit discourse on racial and sexual hierarchies, which reward only as much as they color the specific milieu within which the film’s youthful characters occupy. Coupled with a funky synth soundtrack in uncanny matrimony with the otherwise tranquil landscape, Tiger Stripes’ mise-en-scène proves simultaneously enthralling and somnolent, much like the lead performances, which are especially compelling in the context of Eu’s childhood vignettes, but also shy away from coherence when juxtaposed against the larger picture. This is a vivid enough depiction, but it could use more meat.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 22.