Tiger Stripes (2023)

Zafreen Zairizai is Zaffan in Amanda Nell Eu’s “Tiger Stripes.”

Restless ‘Tiger’ more than earns its stripes

Menstruation is often scornfully referred to as “the curse.” This term no doubt inspired rookie writer-director Amanda Nell Eu to take the analogy literally and inflict it upon her 12-year-old protagonist in the truly bonkers “Tiger Stripes.”

It doesn’t always work, but it’s definitely original, fusing Malaysian folklore with elements of 1970s horror classics to depict the misery of enduring the onset of female puberty. Like a werewolf during a full moon, Zaffan (excellent newcomer Zafreen Zairizai) transforms into a hideous monster, caked in blood and emitting a foul odor that sends even her two closest friends, Farah (Deena Ezral) and Mariam (Piqa), running for cover.

Wait, it gets worse. Soon, pustules are erupting on Zaffan’s face and wiry hairs sprout from the most unusual places. Before you can say, “uncontrollable rage,” Zaffan has her entire village reaching for the pitchforks.

You’d be laughing, if you weren’t so repulsed, which is in keeping with Eu’s intent for us to see Zaffan as she sees herself, as a frightened – and frightening – wild feline, separated from her pride (literally and figuratively) and no longer in control of her body. You instantly recognize the influence of the two Davids, Lynch and Cronenberg, as Eu practically dares us not to look away from disturbing images of Zaffan feeding off the blood of various forest creatures to satiate her growing hunger and lust.

Fortunately, there are no boys at her strict Muslim school. If there were, one can only imagine the devastation resulting from these hormonal outbursts. The absence of lads also spares Zaffan further humiliation when her escalating internal convulsions cause her to pee her pants during class. But such off-putting instances do nothing to deflect Eu’s metaphoric delineation of Zaffan’s budding sexuality in a place where shagging is regarded as a means of procreation, not pleasure.

It’s interesting that Eu was 11 when she moved from Kuala Lumpur to London. Might “Tiger Stripes” have been inspired by her experiences growing up in a society that strictly enforces gender roles? Duh! And the evidence is hardly subtle, right down to a grammar teacher offering examples of how to use a verb by writing on the chalkboard, “The father goes to work,” and “The mother cooks.”

The weight of oppression is palpable, not to mention soul-crushing, as we observe a once carefree Zaffan (first seen making uninhibited and suggestive TikTok videos on her phone) drained of all spirit. Will she get her revenge? You’ll have to see, but a scene worth noting involves Zaffan’s parents (Khairunazwan Rodzy and June Lojong) summoning a charlatan physician to Zaffan’s village to perform an exorcism. Dr. Rahim (a hilarious Shaheizy Sam) is male, of course, a sort of Malaysian Dr. Oz who broadcasts his voodoo quackery to his thousands of Facebook followers.

Cynical? Eu is certainly that. But she effectively establishes her points, employing metaphor to denounce sexism and some of the worst misogynists, other girls. At times, Eu goes overboard, introducing elements of the supernatural through the suggestion that Zaffan is under the influence of a laser-eyed devil perched in a tree. And it must be said that “Tiger Stripes” bears more than a passing resemblance to Pixar’s marvelous “Red Panda” and Julia Ducournau’s blood-drenched “Raw,” which also dealt with bodily horror.

Yet, Eu manages to make “Tiger Stripes,” a 2023 Cannes prize-winner, her own by drawing on her personal journey to womanhood in a part of the world where females are often deemed second class. That in itself is scary. But Eu is determined to use her parable to scuttle such beliefs by encouraging the backward thinkers to get, excuse the expression, into the flow.


Tiger Stripes

Rated: Not rated

Cast: Zafreen Zairizai, Deena Ezral, Piqa, June Lojong, Shaheizy Sam and Khairunazwan Rodzy

Director: Amanda Nell Eu

Writer: Amanda Nell Eu

Runtime: 95 minutes

Where: In theaters June 14

Grade: B

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