Puberty brings out the monster within

With her feature debut, Tiger Stripes, Malaysian writer-director Amanda Nel Yew joins an exciting group of filmmakers delivering subversive takes on the genre and body horror. Julia Ducournau and “Raw” come to mind, as does Agnieszka Smochinska and “The Lure” and John Fawcett and “Ginger Snaps” — like David Cronenberg before them.

Yu, a graduate of the London Film School, combines Malaysian folklore with heightened realism and a heavy dose of Mean Girls in the story of a girl going through puberty-induced changes and changes in her friend group. With a world premiere at Cannes Critics’ Week, it won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Feature Film and has been garnering further accolades ever since. It represents Malaysia in the International Feature Film Oscar competition.

Daring 12-year-old Zafan (Zafrin Zairizal) is the natural leader among her group of friends, all currently seniors at their religious elementary school. She’s the one who wears a bra under her proper Islamic clothing, removes said clothing to splash in an idyllic forest pool, and dances wildly for TikTok.

Although she hangs out with Zaff, the seemingly younger Farah (Deena Ezral), a mean prefect, is actually both jealous and disgusted with her. Meanwhile, cute Mariam (Piqa) tries to keep the peace as the trio head home, meowing when they’re cats, putting colorful stickers everywhere and taking pictures on their phones.

When Zaff becomes the first girl in school to start menstruating, it catalyzes physical changes in her, as well as her sudden loss of top girl status, orchestrated by the mean Farrah, who never misses a chance to embarrass her and get others to ostracize her as well . Things are not positive for the period at home either, as her strict mother tells her, “You’re dirty now.”

Zaff has no one to talk to about what’s going on; about the cruelty of her former friends, her physical transformations and urges, or her visions of a red-eyed demon in the treetops. Although she tries to hide by adding gloves to her modest Islamic dress, the more she’s provoked, the more she transforms into a tiger-whirl capable of tying up trees (courtesy of a kind of nasty but endearing special effect) and to kill and eat small animals.

When Farrah leads the other girls in brutally bullying Zaff in the student restroom one day, Zaff decides to embrace her monstrosity and unleash her inner tiger, causing hysteria among the girls and teachers. Inauspicious publicity hunter Dr. Rahim (Shaheizi Sam) arrives on the scene and convinces Zaf’s parents that an exorcism will solve the problem. More chaos ensues.

Eu’s clever script turns Zaff’s story into a parable about individuality and independence and whether to remain hidden in shame and fear or express one’s own strength and freedom. To make this point, she is helped immeasurably by the strong casting of the three main girls and their chemistry. Due to the pandemic, Eu had a longer pre-production period to work with them and an acting coach, as well as share and discuss the film’s themes.

Filming inventively on a shoestring budget in three locations – the school, the dense green forest and Zaff’s home – Yu uses nature as a liminal space where the girls can retain their childlike mannerisms yet be wild without worrying about the judgment of their community . It is a place where they peacefully coexist with wild animals and sometimes hard-to-see demons.

From the lavish credits and opening sequence to the ending, ‘Tiger Stripes’ is the work of a confident new talent whose next work will be eagerly awaited.

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