Gemma Creagh takes a swipe at Amanda Nell Eu’s dark coming of age debut, Tiger Stripes

The Malay offering for last year’s Oscars, Tiger Stripes is a truly unique body horror that faces one of humankind’s most painful transitions: puberty in young women. 

Dressed in the Islamic uniform of her religious primary school, Tiger Stripes opens as Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal) embodies a joyful and exuberant dance for TikTok. After, she strips down to shorts and a vest and proudly shows off her brand new bra strap to her two childhood friends in the school toilet. Interrupted by a teacher, they lock themselves inside and are landed in trouble. This is the first of many instances when authority figures intervene causing disruption in these young girls’ lives. Later, in their favourite spot, an isolated picturesque pool in the wilderness, a threatened and somewhat bitter Farah (Deena Ezral) is quick to tear Zaffab down. Mariam (Piqa), the peacemaker of the trio intervenes and meows like a cat to diffuse the situation, a feline metaphor that keeps recurring. 

One night Zaffon wakes, shaking. She shows her stern mother, Munah (June Lojong) the blood on her bed, her first period. Munah responds with “You’re dirty now.” as she ushers her from the room. In school, the other girls soon learn that Zaffan’s menstruation has begun because she’s allowed to skip prayers. She spends her time alone outside, doodling dirty pictures in her diary. This is the final straw for Farah, who grabs the book in an attempt to humiliate Zaffan. Later, Mariam reads up on menstruation, and discovers a cautionary tale in local folklore, she warns Zaffan that if she isn’t careful, demons will follow her around and lick her blood. At home the changes in Zaffan’s body become heightened; she starts itching a nasty rash and losing her hair. In school, Farah’s campaign against Zaffan continues; she enlists the other girls in the class in tormenting her, commenting on her smell and alienating her at lunch. The pressure is too much, and Zaffan loses control of herself, and finds herself lashing out in rage, biting and hurting animals. She begins to see strange things, a woman in a tree with pink laser eyes. Finally, when Farah’s bullying escalates to a physical attack, Zaffan loses control publically and the whole village learns about her condition. 

Anyone familiar with Pixar’s Turning Red, will find this metaphor a familiar one, although what Writer/Director Amanda Nell Eu has to say with Tiger Stripes is something much darker. Beside the obvious literal demonising of a young woman’s sexuality, there’s a lot to unpack in terms of gender commentary. The fear and the palpable shame enforced on Zaffan by her friends, community and her own mother is something she spends the film attempting to survive. Zaffan’s father plays a distant, warm figure, but as the narrative plays out, it’s clear he’s abstaining from parenting. This is why Munah’s harsh methods are initially interpreted as cruel, but in reality are her attempts to protect her daughter. There’s nuance, and even a dark humour found in those beats, and even antagonistic characters like Farah, or the religious leader who tries to cure Zaffan. These are all underpinned by the performances of some impressive young actors, who deliver a brilliant chemistry on screen. 

Tiger Stripes premiered at Cannes last year, and won the Critics’ Week Grand Prize, yet despite the accolades, sections of the film were cut from the Malaysian release. These included a scene showing blood on a period pad, a girl trying on her friend’s bra over her uniform – although no skin was shown in that scene – and a pivotal moment of what represented an emotional triumph for her character: Zaffan doing a joyous TikTok dance in a waterfall, her long hair flowing. These key moments being erased from this international co-production, led to Amanda Nell Eu disowning the cut. In a letter about this censorship, she  wrote “I do not stand behind the cut that will be shown in local cinemas […] the film that will be shown in local cinemas is not the film that we made, and it is not the film that won the Grand Prize of the Critics Week in Cannes.” 

The elements of this film are almost unnerving when paired. The striking yellow grade highlights the beauty of the natural environment. The actors are small in the frame, and action shots played wide – which in turn places the subject in the landscape in a way that they seem small. The sound design uses little music for the most part, the wildtrack of the jungle, the natural environment are always present in the background. However when the score does kick in, it’s strange and unnerving. The tone, too, is incomparable – the film doesn’t hold tightly to any one horror trope, and there’s an authentic terror to the body horror elements, to Zaffan’s suffering, yet there are darkly farcical moments in the effects and physicality that deliver distinct notes of Evil Dead. 

One for the cinefiles, Tiger Stripes has surely earned a place on any “must watch lists” going forward. Amanda Nell Eu delivers a bold and challenging first feature that has a lot to say. Establishing herself as a distinct voice off the bat, all eyes, even laser pink ones, will be on her next feature. 

Tiger Stripes is playing in select cinemas from 17th May 2024. 


Gemma Creagh is a writer, filmmaker and journalist. In 2014 she graduated with a First from NUIG’s MA Writing programme. Gemma’s play Spoiling Sunset was staged in Galway as part of the Jerome Hynes One Act Play series in 2014. Gemma was one of eight playwrights selected for AboutFACE’s 2021 Transatlantic Tales and is presently developing a play with the Axis Theatre and with the support of the Arts Council. She has been commissioned to submit a play by Voyeur Theatre to potentially be performed in Summer 2023 as part of the local arts festival. Gemma was the writer and co-producer of the five-part comedy Rental Boys for RTÉ’s Storyland. She has gone on to write, direct and produce shorts which screened at festivals around the world. She was commissioned to direct the short film, After You, by Filmbase and TBCT. Gemma has penned articles for magazines, industry websites and national newspapers, she’s the assistant editor for Film Ireland and she contributes reviews to RTE Radio One’s Arena on occasion.

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