The universal experience of going through puberty, for any teen in the middle of it, is basically a first-person body-horror movie – with innocence traded for terrifying new powers and one’s changing place in the world painfully up for grabs. That is the premise of the brutal, subversive and vividly colorful first feature by Malaysian writer-director Amanda Nell Eu. Tiger Stripespremieres on Wednesday in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes.
“As a teenager, you look at your body one day and suddenly something new and terrifying happens,” says Eu. “And there are all these clichés about how teenage girls get so emotional and hysterical that they turn into ‘monsters.’ So I thought, ‘What if I tell a story about a girl who really becomes a monster’?”
Of Tiger Stripes, Eu gives this premise an appealing peculiarity by basing the story on the traditional folk beliefs of rural Malaysia – tales of immoral women driven into the jungle to become dangerous, supernatural beings, or tiger spirits masquerading as humans to destroy society to enter. At the same time, she creates the sense of universal resemblance by confining the film’s setting to a few key locations: her young protagonist’s home, the school, and the surrounding jungle – a somewhat imaginary version of Malaysia’s remote Nusatara region.
Tiger Stripes stars new 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 to experience other horrifying changes to her body, which she initially tries to hide. But it’s not long before her classmates – led by her two former best friends, Farah (Deena Ezral) and Mariam (Piqa) – notice and start bullying her mercilessly. As Zaffan strikes back defiantly, the girls crash to the floor in fits and starts and a mass hysteria sweeps through the school, with rumors of dark spew haunting the halls, infecting even the teachers’ imaginations. When a social media charlatan spiritual guru is enlisted to banish Zaffan as the source of the wickedness, she must decide whether to submit to society’s disgrace or embrace her true monstrous self, with all its fury. , anger and beauty.
Ew says she took inspiration for the film’s creature elements directly from the endemic 1950s monster cinema of Southeast Asia. “I’ve never wanted anything elegant,” she explains. “It would always be very gnarly and very rooted in our culture, which is probably something that much of the world hasn’t seen, because the old genre films in Southeast Asia are relatively underexposed.”
The playful energy and style that radiates from it Tiger Stripes was inspired by the three young actresses playing Zaffan and her two best friends for the first time, says Ew. The film was produced during the height of the pandemic, making it impossible to visit local schools to hold open casting calls, as her team originally intended. Instead, they turned to TikTok and Instagram. Its casting director contacted Malaysian tweens who seemed to fit the roles and had a large following, and the production also bought ads to place targeted digital casting calls to the social media services. “Whenever there was a partial opening of the lockdowns, we quickly contacted their parents and arranged a face-to-face meeting,” recalled Ew. After meeting a few hundred girls, they whittled down the roster to about 30 and held a series of acting workshops.
Through these workshops, Zofran, her eventual star, caught Ew’s attention. “She was just amazing — so playful and incredibly sassy, but also very brave,” she says. “She was always the girl who would try everything first.”
“This is a movie that celebrates the monsters out there — the people who don’t belong and who are rejected by society,” she adds. “Feeding Zofran’s energy was so much fun and exciting. She embodies the spirit of the film: breaking the rules society has made, being wild and becoming tigers again.”