Is there anything more terrifying than becoming a woman? For those of you who haven’t done it, let me assure you, it’s fucked. I imagine only giving birth involves more real life body horror (as far as natural events that keep the human species going). There’s no shortage of films that take this challenging time through a monstrous journey and in that, ‘Tiger Stripes’ is no different. This Malaysian take on the trope, however, offers a new perspective, and a new type of transformation. Writer/ Director Amanda Nell Eu’s first feature film follows 11 year old Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal) as she becomes the first of her friends to get her period and must maneuver through the changes in her body and the changes in her relationships.
As we follow Zaffan’s journey we are not only privy to the challenges that go hand in hand with puberty, but also glimpses of the difficulties she will continue to come across throughout her life. Her mother urges her (sometimes violently) to remain covered and remember her station so as not to shame the family. Their relationship is fraught with tension and explosive arguments as Zaffan bucks against her mothers rules. We also see flashes of a much older woman, almost haunting Zaffan, that calls to mind the crone image that we all face as we advance in age. Throughout ‘Tiger Stripes’ we are reminded, subtly, that being a woman is a never ending series of no-win situations. The first of these situations, of course, is what befalls Zaffan and her friends. You don’t want to be the first to get your period, but you also don’t want to be the last. You don’t feel like you’ve changed but you also feel like you do. We see Zaffan clinging to childhood freedom as her body thrusts her into the pain of adulthood. She fears her changing body, which most women would agree is a fear that will come back time and again throughout her life. Her friends are simultaneously jealous, disgusted, and afraid of the difference in their friend who was once the leader on their adventures.
Zairizal does an amazing job with the lead role in this film. She moves effortlessly from carefree adventurous child to the hurt and broken young adult betrayed by those around her. When it is time for her to really cut loose with a roar she does not hold back and it pays off powerfully. This could not have been an easy role for a young fresh actress and she navigates it confidently. The rest of the young cast comes through as well with great supporting pieces.
If a metamorphosis film is only as good as its transformation, that is where ‘Tiger Stripes’ falls down a bit. The creature effects are clunky and limited. Although the proportions of some of the pieces feel off, that aspect does largely work for the puberty metaphor as that is a time where every body part does seem to be growing at its own rate anyway. While we do get some flashes of the body horror grossness that we’ve all come to expect from this type of film the gore is very restrained. A lot of this can probably chalked up to the limitations of a low budget film and ends up being fairly charming to those who appreciated an earnest effort. For me, I’m always welcoming of more stories from the perspective of women and girls and this one hits the mark on those universal analogies while also being a uniquely Malaysian story.
‘Tiger Stripes‘ screened at Fantastic Fest on September 22nd, 2023.
Fantastic Fest: ‘Tiger Stripes’ Is A Malaysian Coming Of Age Nightmare