Zesty Malaysian Coming-Of-Age Tale Of Emancipation Intelligently Remixes Metaphors [Cannes]

May 18, 2023

The use of body horror allegories in cinema to address the physical, physiological, and mental changes brought on by puberty could hardly be called original. However, by delightfully and intelligently remixing symbols and metaphors Malaysian director Amanda Nell Eu refreshes the concept in her zesty debut feature “Tiger Stripes.” 
The term “body horror” could in fact be considered a misnomer in this case, as our fierce lead protagonist Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal) doesn’t undergo anything as monstrous as growing a car in her belly or a biogun out of her hand. Her worst symptoms in fact, for most of the film’s duration, are rashes on the skin and big white spots on her face. These however are bad enough to turn her into an outcast in the extremely repressive world of her Malaysian middle school. Indeed, part of the film’s vivifying undercurrent of anger and bitterness lies precisely in the fact that she does not have to fully become a strange-looking creature before she is treated like one. It is enough simply to ignore a few of the restrictive rules of conduct that girls her age not only follow but perpetuate amongst themselves.
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Nell Eu’s other smart idea is to place a young girl, who isn’t about to take this sudden ostracising lying down, in this central position. Already a bit of a rebel at the start of the film, at no point throughout her transformation does Zaffan truly take to heart what others might think of or say about her — she does get sad, sometimes even hurt, but she never believes them. When we are first introduced to the 12-year-old, she is already the most rebellious in her group of friends, constantly chastised by the obedient Farah (Deena Ezral) while the quiet Mariam (Piqa) giggles in the background. The trio is recording TikTok videos in the school’s bathroom, Zaffan smiling into the iPhone while she dances, her hair flowing wildly around her – she isn’t wearing her headscarf. The song and the video are part of the fun, but it is clear that what Zaffan enjoys the most is the opportunity to freely move her body — an impression confirmed when the girls stop by a little stream after school and Zaffan then arrives home completely covered in water, to her mother’s great chagrin. Nell Eu does not draw an explicit line between this hunger for sensations and a burgeoning sexuality; rather she shows that these curious and innocent girls are only just starting to conceive of their bodies as more than what they use to dance, swim in rivers, or simply move around the world in. In one scene, again in the school bathroom, the girls take turns trying on a bra over their clothes, observing how it changes their body shape. They don’t make a big deal out of it, they are simply having fun (though Farah is quick to put an end to that, as she always does whenever the band is breaking the rules). 
It is only once Zaffan gets her first period that the carefree young girl comes to realize just how unfree she really is: growing up is the beginning of her troubles, not the end. Her mother does not react in any particular way when her daughter calls for help after waking up with blood in her bed, but she does not have anything reassuring to say either, and nothing to prepare her for the disgusted reaction of her schoolmates. Goody-two-shoes Farah is the first to mock her friend, to the point where she eventually becomes the chief mean girl of the class, surrounded by her minions. 
Why this repulsion for a perfectly normal moment in a young woman’s life? Nell Eu cannily shows it doesn’t come out of nowhere. In one scene, a strict female teacher refuses to let a begging Zaffan go to the toilet, and the inevitable happens. Other indicators of a generalized culture of repression for women are less direct (Zaffan’s highly strung mother versus her father, perpetually watching television; Farah’s intense internalized misogyny), but it’s a mood that culminates in several violent moments, some of them fantastical, others painfully realistic.
In the former category is Zaffan’s transformation into a tiger (she has a tail!), an obvious visual manifestation of a generalized fear of women. More interesting is how this change is also the young girl’s way of resisting this narrative: she literally has the claws to fight back, and she puts them to use. She will not hide in the forest in shame. 
This exemplifies the film’s playful, imaginative approach to its metaphorical structure and its ultimate faith in human nature. When a shaman comes to Zaffan’s small town to help her (a realistic manifestation of this culture of violence), any viewer expects the crowd to silently watch as the young girl suffers. Here, however, his violent methods turn all present against him in a matter of minutes. Zaffan never fits into the mold of the good girl but neither does Farah into that of the perfect student. The film’s charming characters never completely match those stereotypes; they spill out of those stifling social roles all the time and are capable of cheerfully leaving them behind. [B+]
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