Credit: Dark Star Pictures
by Sasha Han Feature Articles Featured Film Interviews

Supernatural Sticker Sisterhood: An Interview with Amanda Nell Eu

June 18, 2024

In town to open the 34th Singapore International Film Festival with her debut feature, Tiger Stripes (2023), Amanda Nell Eu settled into a cafe at the National Museum of Singapore to a crowd who sought an audience with the first Malaysian director to win a top award — the Grand Critics’ Prize — at Cannes. She arrived breezy and exuberant, eyes gleaming with irreverent playfulness, reminding of the way her films since It’s Easier to Raise Cattle (2017) and Vinegar Baths (2018) have indulged in the acute pleasures of being a woman amidst patriarchal impositions of propriety on women.

Set in rural Malaysia, Tiger Stripes charts the coming of age of a young girl, Zaffan, alongside her spiritual and physical transformation into a tiger when she finds her boundaries increasingly trespassed by forces both dear and hostile. As with her earlier films, Eu harvests the stories of female ghosts in Southeast Asia and the fear of the supernatural to insist on the right to an inner, private life away from the invasive judgements of a conservative community. In the conversation that took place before her Q&A for the second screening of her film, Eu spoke to me about her past life as a student of graphic design, her love for stickers and figurines, as well as how her identity as a Southeast Asian filmmaker allowed her to circumvent the recent censorship of her film in Malaysia.

Sasha Han: Amanda, were you always always attracted to horror?

Amanda Nell Eu: Since I was a child. It was actually my entry into cinema. At 13 or 14 years, I became obsessed with horror films and later became a cinephile.

SH: How did you tend to your love for horror and cinema during your time at Central Saint Martins for graphic design?

ANE: At design school, I basically made animation, music videos, and short films about very strange things, like kids turning into pieces of bread and experimenting with body horror. I remember my lecturers asking me what I was doing there and why I wasn’t at film school. But I didn’t want to quit or drop out.

When I finally went to film school, I dropped all of the horror stuff because it felt like I had to make social-realist films. It was only after I came back to Malaysia that I decided that I would go back to what I love: weird body horror, the strange and quirky. 

SH: It sounds like that’s when everything came together with design and film for you. You’ve mentioned your love for Mastika magazine and how you based the design of the Tiger Stripes movie poster on its imagery and aesthetic. I understand that each issue contains a spread of pop culture, fiction, and horror. There’s a scene in the film where the girls spend their time trying to scare each other with horror stories from the Internet. Did you speak to your friends about the Mastika stories the way the girls did?

ANE: Never as a kid. I only fell in love with Mastika when I was in my 20s. Sharon Chin, the production designer of Tiger Stripes, has a huge collection of it, and I was at her house just going through them thinking, this is nuts. The imagery and content is so weird and bizarre. There’s stories of a guy who died eating tauge [beansprouts] or of a woman who sold her soul to black magic and then grew an extra breast. I saw softcore porn in it as well. There was this blend of comedy and absurdity which I loved, which became a big inspiration for those elements in Tiger Stripes

Sharon and I spoke endlessly about what and how we wanted Zaffan to look. She was never this beautiful, full tiger. We wanted her to be like an image from Mastika where it’s almost painted on, with this quality of oil paint and it’s not really in the right proportions. Pulp horror vibe.

SH: I’m intrigued by the way you use stickers in Tiger Stripes, which you also did in It’s Easier to Raise Cattle (2017). The girls in both films were pinning them on any surface they could find. It’s adorable, but I’m wondering, is there something more?

ANE: It’s part of my personality. I was one of those kids who loved stationery shops. The stickers thing is part of my nostalgia and generation at school where we would swap our stickers. There’s a lot of parts of me in that for sure.

SH: And the girls in Tiger Stripes were so careful in picking out the stickers too. It was almost like they were sticking on each other to show their affection and ownership of their friendship.

ANE: Yeah, that’s what I remember doing! Giving a friend my favorite sticker. While I was writing, the stickers became part of the story, the way you leave bread crumbs on a trail in a fairytale. Stickers became a way for Mariam to find Zaffan. 

SH: Since It’s Easier to Raise Cattle, your films have featured very little dialogue. Zaffan’s dialogue is minimal and she tends to respond to, instead of initiate, conversation. In fact, at one point she starts meowing with her friends when she finds that words fail in her apology, like it’s this shared language between them.

ANE: In terms of dialogue, Zaffan is a character that speaks through physicality. For me, it’s about her transformation, which happens when she starts meowing and then gets down on all fours. It was really about the body and how it can express love, rage, happiness, even kindness.

Credit: Dark Star Pictures

SH: You once said the horror genre can mask the terror of real life in a way where the terror of real life becomes this hilarious joke. I’m thinking about this in the context of Tiger Stripes where the horror of the film is not the grotesque transformation of a girl into a tiger, which is done in a way that’s so theatrical and delightful, but the community’s hysteria about how women must behave even in private spaces. That kind of infringement of privacy and sense of being watched seeps into every aspect of their lives. How do you conceive of horror these days?

ANE: Facing real life is so sad because it’s what we actually have to experience. I’ve realized that my love for playing with genre is really an escapism reality, from my anger toward it. Or at least my anger of reality. And the horror isn’t really there. It’s an invitation into a new fantasy and to come play with me. Let’s be free over here where it’s more fun.

You know it’s ultimately still very much the joy I get from it. When I go to genre festivals, I always find myself quietly clapping in delight. My happy place is where the monsters are. What I do want moving forward is more blood in my next film about mothers. I just remembered how much I wanted to go into the tub of blood in Vinegar Baths (2018).

SH: The penanggalan in Vinegar Baths was like Countess Elizabeth Bathory bathing in the blood of a victim.

ANE: Exactly! I actually have a toy of Elizabeth Bathory in a bathtub at home. I also have a candlestick with three female, virgin heads stuck on it. 

SH: The communal and the autocratic hysteria seems to bring out the supernatural in your films.

In Tiger Stripes, a student goes missing after being bullied by seniors at a girl scout camp. When she’s found in a tree, she tells the other scouts that the lady in the tree told her she wouldn’t be bullied up there. We had earlier seen that the tree was occupied by an entity with pink neon eyes. Later in the film, Zaffan’s complete transformation into a tiger was really triggered by self-preservation, to defend herself from a really violent exorcism. In this sense, ghosts become companions and protectors of victims.

ANE: A hundred percent. They’re not menacing at all. They’re there to watch and love us. If we ever need help, they’re there to take care of that. 

But there’s also this duality where your beliefs affect the way you see the film. For example, you could believe that the exorcist was genuinely trying to do his job. He is genuinely trying to bring this demon out, though not in the way he expects because the demon comes out to attack him. And of course the other way you can look at it is how if you keep poking and pressuring someone, they’re going to stand up and rip your head off. When Zaffan finally does that, she learns to stand up and free herself. She doesn’t feel she has to live up to society’s expectations; she can roam free in the jungle and dance in the waterfall at night for her TikTok followers. 

On one hand, her becoming a tiger means she can never go home. She’s technically alone because she’s not with her family, but I think the film makes it clear that there’s room for others to join her. They just need to follow the supernatural stickers they leave behind for each other. 

Credit: Dark Star Pictures

SH: Could you speak a bit about the relationship between Zaffan and Munah, her mother? 

ANE: Their relationship is based on the “Ugly Duckling” fairy tale. When I worked with June Lojong, the actress who plays Munah, I gave her the original story to read and we talked about it a lot. We worked on the idea that she really loves her child but doesn’t understand who her child really is. She’s afraid of her child being the ugly duckling and so wants to protect her by aggressively shaping her into someone who conforms. 

I also want to point out that yes, it’s a coming-of-age story, and yes, this girl transforms into a creature that can rip heads off. But she’s still a kid, and we shouldn’t forget. Even when she transforms into a tiger, you see that she’s so tiny and obviously a child. I always hated when girls get their period and people go, now you’re a woman. I always think, no, actually, they’re still children. While working on this film I was speaking to one of my producers, Foo Fei Ling, about memories of being a young teenager. How you had no boundaries or privacy at all, and everything is encroached on you at home or at school. When I was in the midst of research for the film, this young activist, Nalisa Alia Amin, started this movement to call for teachers to be held accountable for the continued practice of period spot checks happening across schools in Malaysia. It’s how we think of girls becoming women when they start menstruating, but then not take their word seriously and begin to double-down on policing them.

I wanted to go against the idea that you had to mature into a woman once your body starts changing. What we need to recognize is they still need to be treated as kids. In that sense, I made sure that Zaffan remains a child throughout the film, dancing and being silly in the forest. She’s a child who still needs to be protected.

SH: Why do you think the situation with bomohs [Malay shamans] is so prevalent in Malaysia? Why do people gravitate toward these characters?

ANE: They’re really charismatic, of course. I respect what they do and I don’t want to make fun of it. What I’m making fun of is authority and the need for power. That’s why his character keeps asking for likes and followers. It’s comedic, but at the same time that’s what the authorities are doing. We see them moving to social media to gain likes and followers and to eventually control algorithms of what we see. 

I say this a lot in Q&As but in Southeast Asia, religion, folklore, and animism are very much part of our lives. They live with us. Like the pontianak is real to us and lives amongst us, unlike something like werewolf stories where it seems to be quite rooted in fiction. People here really rely on these spiritual figures to manage their lives.

SH: I really want to ask you about how, beyond your identity as a Malaysian director, you strongly identify as a Southeast Asian filmmaker. In light of the censorship Tiger Stripes has been subjected to in Malaysia, this notion has proven itself in the way festivals in other parts of the region have committed to screening the uncensored version of the film. It’s really exciting to see how the film can play and exist beyond its country of origin since our films tend to be grouped under a national cinema canon. What has been your experience of this?

ANE: I really wish I was able to be connected to the Malaysian audience with the full film. It’s been released in theatres in Malaysia, but I can’t stand behind a film that is not my cut. I’m saddened by that, but then I see the engagement in Southeast Asia. It’s been screened in Indonesia, Philippines, and Singapore. The audience really gets it because it’s our language. The visuals are familiar, it’s our tales, it’s what we know. An Indonesian woman actually came up to me after a screening to tell me she had a similar experience in school where she had to wash her pants with her feet because she was scared of it being dirty and all that stuff. 

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve screened it in Europe and America and people still relate to it because I think the themes are quite universal. It’s just an extra special layer in Southeast Asia where they just get it. I was saying before that I had to explain how we live our folktales to an audience outside the region. But we know this already in Southeast Asia. 

SH: I wanted to add that I thought that your film was aptly titled Tiger Stripes because, of course, the Malaysian state crest has two tigers. It’s very simply a Malaysian film. 

ANE: Yeah, and our national football team is named after the Malayan tiger, Harimau Malaya. The real Malayan tigers are also close to extinction. The irony here is we love the tiger, but we don’t take care of them. In the end, all we’re left with is the symbol.