Cannes 2023 review: Tiger Stripes (Amanda Nell Eu)

“Tiger Stripes is a solid debut for Eu, and a crowd-pleaser that will find its way on the festival circuit, especially at youth festivals.”

Body horror is a tried and tested way in cinema to handle topics surrounding ‘otherness’, often involving queer elements; often coming-of-age stories, with protagonists coming to grips with being different and finding the freedom in learning to be who you are. In her debut feature, Malaysian director Amanda Nell Eu takes the changing body quite to the extreme. Tiger Stripes, playing in the Semaine de la Critique, does not have queer elements, but nicely frames female identity and the female body in a deeply religious setting and explores how women can find their own liberation within that context. While the way her lead changes into a ferocious feline leaves the viewer a bit puzzled about how the girl in question would deal with life going forward, Tiger Stripes is a fun first film that will attract young audiences.

Young Zaffan is a cheeky and rebellious kid who is part of the popular clique at her all-girl school, always ready for a prank on one of her teachers or some other mischief. Living in a strict religious society in which girls are expected to cover up, the outgoing Zaffan is the envy of her friends because she wears a bra and posts wild TikTok dances. She even had her first period! As she is the first in her class to have one, the other girls want to know all about it. But it isn’t the only change in her body that Zaffan has to deal with, and the other one is far scarier. A rash all over her body, hair falling out, and an increasing tendency to growl when under threat: given the title of the film, it isn’t hard to guess what she is changing into. Her presence seems to affect her classmates, pushing them into panic attacks when she is near. They start ostracizing and bullying Zaffan, and just as she starts to embrace her true self a charlatan faith healer is called in to deal with her ‘issue’.

Tiger Stripes is definitely a film that skews young, and its mileage may vary with more adult audiences, but as a coming-of-age film that knows its limits it is a joyful if slightly chaotic first effort from Eu. Built on a breakout performance by Zafreen Zairizal as the catty protagonist, the film isn’t entirely consistent with Zaffan’s physical changes and when and how they manifest, and the part of the faith healer is too broadly set up and played to match the light but still serious tone of the rest of the film. These are not major flaws though. The film’s message of accepting who and what you are and learning to get through life with that in mind is one that cinema has handled before, but Eu finds an original way to channel it. Its portrayal of the position of girls in strict patriarchal communities is subtle and eschews preachiness, keeping its audience in mind and not leaning too heavily into its message. Tiger Stripes is a solid debut for Eu, and a crowd-pleaser that will find its way on the festival circuit, especially at youth festivals, and into arthouse theatres willing to program young.