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Tiger Stripes Film Review: Assured Tiger Tale

A teenager mimics a tiger with grinding teeth in the film Tiger Stripes

Malaysian body horror Tiger Stripes is a decent tiger tale assured in its themes of body autonomy and pre-teen freedom.

Director: Amanda Nell Eu
Genre: Horror
Run Time: 95′
U.K. & IE Release: May 17, 2024 in cinemas
U.S. Release: June 14, 2024 in theaters, July 9, 2024 on VOD
Where to watch: in UK cinemas

Body autonomy and pre-teen freedom are key to Tiger Stripes, the debut feature from Amanda Nell Eu that was Malaysia’s choice for Best International Feature at last year’s Oscars. The film follows Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal), who attends a Muslim school in her small rural community. She is a carefree pre-teen, whether doing a TikTok dance challenge in the toilets, playing in the creek with friends Farah (Deena Ezral) and Mariam (Piqa) or placing stickers onto every pole, tree or sign she can find.

It is a mischievousness punished by her mother Munah (June Lojong), as well as her school’s headteacher (Fatimah Abu Bakar).

However, things are about to change. Zaffan becomes the first of her friends to get their period, with Farah and Mariam distancing themselves from her once the news spreads. Then weird things start to occur. Zaffan starts to develop rashes on her body. Her hair is falling out. And she sees a red-eyed woman watching her from a tree (her pupils will look familiar if you have seen Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives). It soon becomes apparent that Zaffan’s body is undergoing an animalistic transformation. But when an incident leads to mass hysteria at school and the arrival of snake oil exorcist Dr Rahim (an entertaining Shaheizy Sam), she begins to embrace it.

Horror – and specifically body horror – being used as a metaphor for puberty or coming-of-age is nothing new. Jennifer’s Body, Julia Ducournau’s Raw, werewolf story Ginger Snaps. Even Pixar’s Turning Red has a pre-teen girl turning into an animal, albeit in a less gory way. Then again, calling Eu’s Tiger Stripes a ‘body horror’ doesn’t feel right. The changes to Zaffan’s body are icky but never overwhelmingly gruesome, and the film’s tone regarding them is understated. Perhaps that is the point. Menstruation is still treated by many as a taboo subject, and that is especially the case in a film heavily censored by Malaysian authorities upon its release there (Eu has denounced that version).

When Zaffan and her friends talk about sanitary pads, Mariam reads online that if they aren’t washed properly, “demons will lick that blood and follow you around.” It is indicative of the traditional, patriarchal attitudes of this community, where the English sentences students are taught say the husband goes to work whilst the wife stays at home. There is a lack of understanding or care for Zaffan, which leads to her being shamed and her friends turning on her. Zafreen Zairizal conveys that isolation in a confident performance as our rebellious, hurt and ultimately feral protagonist. It is doubly remarkable, considering this is Zairzal’s first-ever role. Also commendable is Deena Ezral as Farah, whose jealousy partly fuels her bullying.

A girl is in the water and two other girls are near her in the film Tiger Stripes
Tiger Stripes (Modern Films)

Tiger Stripes encases itself in the natural sounds of the jungle surrounding this community, from the wind in the trees to a buzzing sound that stalks Zaffan. It creates an intensity reinforced by the engrossing score from the Indonesian duo Gabber Modus Operandi. But it is not just the sound design that makes this film unique. At one point, Farah and Mariam watch footage of a loose tiger in a village on a phone. One of many portrait mode interludes, the scene makes writer-director Eu’s specific choice of metaphor clear (as confirmed later on). However, it also shows how clued in the film is on this phone-scrolling TikTok era we are living in, to the point where even Dr Rahim has a social media presence.

Even at 95 minutes long, there isn’t much to Tiger Stripes, which loses itself by the end. But it is still a decent tiger tale that demonstrates the assuredness of Amanda Nell Eu with her first film. Not only is it well-directed – with some terrific young performances – but it is a horror that manages to juggle the concepts it has to interesting effect. This is a film of a pre-teen girl’s journey towards body acceptance, but also one about the ostracization and shame she is forced to experience along the way. There is pent-up rage and aggression inside Zaffan, emotions found in any adolescent which she takes to a primal extreme. However, as the ending shows, a true friendship can calm the eye of the tiger for a little while.

Tiger Stripes will be released in cinemas in the UK & Ireland on May 17, 2024. In the US, the film will be out in theaters on June 14 and on VOD on July 9.

Tiger Stripes: Trailer (Films Boutique)
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