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The universal experience of going through puberty, for any teenager in the midst of it, is basically a first-person body-horror movie — with innocence traded for frightening new powers and one’s changing place in the world painfully up for grabs. Such is the premise of Malaysian writer-director Amanda Nell Eu’s cheekily subversive and vibrantly colorful first feature Tiger Stripes, premiering in Cannes’ Critics Week section on Wednesday.
“When you’re a teenager, you look down at your body one day and suddenly something new and terrifying has happened,” Eu says. “And there are all of those cliches about how teenage girls become so emotional and hysterical that they turn into ‘monsters.’ So, I thought, ‘What if I tell a story about a girl who actually does become a monster’?”
With Tiger Stripes, Eu gives this premise an appealing particularity by rooting the story in rural Malaysia’s traditional folk beliefs — tales of immoral women driven into the jungle to become dangerous, supernatural creatures, or tiger spirits who disguise themselves as human to enter into society. At the same time, she creates the feeling of a universal parable by limiting the film’s setting to a few key locations: her young protagonist’s home, school and the surrounding jungle — a somewhat imaginary version of Malaysia’s remote Nusatara region.
Tiger Stripes stars first-time actress Zafreen Zairizal as Zaffan, a rebellious and carefree 12-year-old who finds herself in the awkward position of being the first girl in class to get her period. Embarrassed and confused, Zaffan soon begins experiencing other, horrifying changes to her body, which she initially attempts to conceal. But it’s not long before her classmates — led by her two former best friends, Farah (Deena Ezral) and Mariam (Piqa) — take notice and begin mercilessly bullying her. As Zaffan defiantly lashes back, the girls collapse to the floor in fits and a mass hysteria sweeps through the school, with rumors of a dark spirt haunting the halls infecting even the imaginations of the teachers. When a charlatan social media spiritual guru is called in to exorcise Zaffan as the source of the malevolence, she is faced with the decision of whether to submit to society’s shaming or embrace her true monstrous self, with all of its wrath, rage and beauty.
For the movie’s creature elements, Ew says she took direct inspiration from Southeast Asia’s endemic 1950s monster cinema. “I never wanted something elegant,” she explains. “It was always going to be very gnarly and very much rooted in our culture, which is probably something that a lot of the world hasn’t seen, because Southeast Asia’s old genre movies are relatively underexposed.”
The playful energy and style that suffuses Tiger Stripes was inspired by the three young first-time actresses who play Zaffan and her two best friends, Ew says. The film was produced during the height of the pandemic, which precluded visiting local schools to hold open casting calls as her team originally intended. Instead, they turned to TikTok and Instagram. Her casting director reached out to Malaysian tweens who seemed to fit the parts and had large followings, and the production also bought ads to post targeted digital casting calls to the social media services. ‘Whenever there was a partial opening from the lockdowns, we would quickly contact their parents and arrange a meeting in person,” Ew remembers. After meeting a few hundred girls, they narrowed the selection down to about 30 and held a series of acting workshops.
It was through these workshops that Zofran, her eventual star, grabbed Ew’s attention. “She was just amazing — so playful and incredibly cheeky, but also really brave,” she says. “She was always the girl who would be the first to try everything.”
“This is a film to celebrate the monsters out there — the people who don’t fit in and who are rejected by society,” she adds. “Feeding off Zofran’s energy was so fun and exciting. She embodies the film’s spirit — breaking the rules society has built up, being wild and going back to being tigers.”
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