“Most of you will amount to nothing,” a teacher tells pupils at the beginning of Amanda Nell Eu’s Tiger Stripes. By the end of Eu’s intriguing first feature, rebellious 12-year-old pupil Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal) might beg to differ.
A coming-of-age story, it’s an ambitious work that covers a lot of ground, mixing issues of puberty and bullying with Malaysian mythology and culture.
A co-production spanning eight countries, including Qatar, Tiger Stripes makes its bow at the Critics’ Week sidebar of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, and it’s fair to assume there won’t be a more unusual debut this year. Eu, a London Film School graduate, had created a spirited folktale that feels like the love child of David Cronenberg and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
It begins simply enough. Best friends with youngsters Farah (Deena Ezral) and Mariam (Piqa), Zaffan is frequently running into trouble at school with her anti-authoritarian attitude. She’s also the first in her class to start her period, something that soon marks her out as different. Already Farah warns her of what happened to her sister: “Her blood was dripping everywhere.”
While Zaffan is allowed to skip daily prayers, much to the other girls’ annoyance, after an embarrassing classroom accident, she is ostracised. Even her teachers are spectacularly unsympathetic. But as her body changes, it’s not just a natural cycle she is going through. Something is happening to her as she undergoes a metamorphosis, developing unusual animalistic characteristics.
Even more curious, who is the strange female with glowing eyes, sitting in the tree watching her?
Worse is to come after other girls at the school begin to suffer from fits — not unlike British director Carol Morley’s 2014 film The Falling, in which females at an all-girl school begin to experience mass hysteria. Here, a doctor is called in to exorcise the “demon” that everyone believes is lurking inside Zaffan.
“Remember to tag”, he says, amusingly, to onlookers, clearly aware that his social media presence is of vital importance in this day and age. TikTok videos also feature in a film that cleverly splices modern communication with ancient myth.
The influences on Tiger Stripes range from Thai director Weerasethakul’s Cannes-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, with its mythical, red-eyed creatures, to Cronenberg’s body-horrors Rabid and The Fly. Perhaps its closest spiritual cousin is John Fawcett’s Canadian film Ginger Snaps (2000), which follows two teenage girls as they hit puberty, and must deal with the fallout of what happens when one is bitten by a werewolf.
Here, it’s the tiger that becomes a symbol of transformation. At one point, a video features a tiger that’s escaped the jungle and is walking down a road through a small Malaysian town. Rather than admire this creature, the locals look to head it off with guns, in fear of the magnificent beast.
What happens to Zaffan will echo this in the final reel, and while the symbolism of Tiger Stripes may be heavy-handed at times, fear of "the other" is a theme Eu pursues with interest. The low-budget film’s special effects are a little contrived but somehow feel fitting for the story in hand.
At one point, Zaffan climbs a tree, scaling it with all the agility of a wildcat. It’s an odd moment, almost laughable, but then Tiger Stripes is a film that revels in its own strangeness, as Zaffan’s transformation becomes increasingly bizarre. It’s not scary per se, but it grips you, as its young protagonist gradually reveals her true self — an inner beauty and rage.
As for Eu, you could say she earns her stripes with this film, a complex look at adolescence and more. Featuring a fine central performance from the young Zairizal, full of vim and vigour, it all makes for a memorable debut. Whatever Eu does next will be fascinating to see. Hopefully the exposure in Cannes will help, for this is one director who has a big roar in her belly.