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‘Tiger Stripes’ review: A playful, transfixing creature 

Lé Baltar

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‘Tiger Stripes’ review: A playful, transfixing creature 

Still from 'Tiger Stripes'

The film is significant 'not only as a work of art but as an archive of many struggles still roaring in present-day Malaysia, of beasts that are far more terrifying than cinema can imagine'

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

The image of the tiger has long been a marker of Malaysian culture and identity, from lores of shapeshifting weretigers said to exist in settlements decades ago, to the Malayan tiger serving as the country’s national emblem, all the way to the name of its national football team, Harimau Malaya. The myth of the weretiger, often framed as a beast, especially by colonial eyes, is particularly interesting in how it pulls one to the concept of duality, this relentless process of making and unmaking the self and the other, this interrogation of what is human and what is not.

Such is the impetus of Tiger Stripes, Amanda Nell Eu’s Cannes-winning feature debut, about a teenage girl, Zaffan (the charming Zafreen Zairizal), whose transition to womanhood literally transfigures her into the mythical tiger and freaks out locals in the small rural town where she lives. Eu finds an apt and visceral metaphor in the red-eyed creature to craft a “period film” that unapologetically foregrounds the monstrous feminine as an act of dissent and empowerment in largely conservative spaces. 

Those with discerning eyes wouldn’t be surprised by this trajectory in Eu’s work, considering how the director has already wrestled with similar thematic threads in her previous shorts Lagi Senang Jaga Sekandang Lembu (It’s Easier to Raise Cattle) and Vinegar Baths, both of which reject worn-out tropes about women’s autonomy over their bodies by toying with tales of the pontianak and the penanggalan. 

Eu expands these worlds in Tiger Stripes to interrogate how social dogmas forcefully claw its way into the womanhood of Zaffan and many other girls like her. So when blood begins to pool between her legs also comes the hysteria. People around her are quick to equate the changes in her body to being dirty and unholy to the point of abuse. Her turning into a monster, then, speaks of the scale of tradition that has long been impelled upon Malaysian women at large.

Much of the film is infused with phone footage shot like TikTok content. This, alongside the film’s use of practical effects, has been cited by many as a point of weakness for how it supposedly pollutes Tiger Stripes visually. But this heady mix of images actually works within the film’s context, precisely because it demonstrates how the TikTok age has encroached on pubescent life and how messy this place of liminality can get. Beyond that, Eu and cinematographer Jimmy Gimferrer wield it to illustrate tonal shifts, for how this playful camerawork is often used when Zaffan bonds with her friends but also at times when the animosity towards her begins to weigh heavier. Even Rahim (Shaheizy Sam), the quack doctor, is fueled by the power provided by being terminally online. 

And much has already been articulated about how Tiger Stripes examines the monstrosity of puberty and how gendered expectations persist in culturally repressive landscapes, like a panopticon. Zaffan gets called out for showing off a padded bra she’s acquired. When her period begins, she is excused from prayer services, first seen as a privilege but eventually turns into alienation as her friends Farah (Deena Ezral) and Mariam (Piqa) distance themselves from her. At one point, she’s brought into what feels like conversion therapy in an attempt to drive out the demon inside her. All of which are aimed at confining this young girl to behave a certain way. This, on top of comparisons to body horror films, such as David Cronenberg’s Rabid and The Fly, Julia Ducournau’s Raw, and Domee Shi’s Turning Red.

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But what most discussions often sideline is how the film also functions as a critique on the current state of Malayan tigers, whose presence in the wild has been drastically declining since the 1950s due to environmental plunder, rapid development, and poaching. Like a tiger forced out of its habitat, Zaffan is never afforded the chance to lead a normal life, even by the very people who claim to care for her, save for Mariam. What choice does she have but to seek notions of home elsewhere? Ergo the footage of the wild tiger wandering in the city — present survival in hopes of saving an endangered future.

Points arguing about the supposed failure of Tiger Stripes to transform into fully-realized body horror also register as misguided, precisely because it caters to Western sensibilities and its penchant to render everything near-absolute, to subscribe to what is canon. But, clearly, the film does not intend to look elegant, for its complexity lies in the opposite, hence the half-human, half-monster aesthetics. 

From the vantage point of a woman of trans experience, these visual decisions also surface a hormonal feeling in how the film appeals to this very particular contact with transhood and existence outside of the dictates of the body — something so terrifying and messy but exciting all the same. And Tiger Stripes, contrary to what others are keen to point out, does not refuse to confront this tension, to emasculate our notions of what makes up body horror, to imagine our lives outside of the moribund fate of biology.

For a work this subversive and acquainted with the social and political milieu that it operates in, it is no surprise that Tiger Stripes would encounter state censorship in its homeland, with a different cut released in Malaysia, which Eu actively denounced. It’s a striking irony that the film carries, given how it is celebrated abroad – in the West in particular. But it also confirms its significance not only as a work of art but as an archive of many struggles still roaring in present-day Malaysia, of beasts that are far more terrifying than cinema can imagine.

One of the film’s most arresting moments is when Zaffan, after killing the quack doctor, finally decides to leave her suffocating community. She walks slowly, eyes burning, as the townspeople trail behind her. One final look before she disappears into the jungle, where she no longer needs to sleepwalk through life — the forest as a site of struggle but also a measure of liberation. –

This piece was completed under the inaugural edition of the QCinema Critics Lab. The author is among the lab’s eight fellows.

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Lé Baltar

Lé Baltar is a Manila-based freelance journalist and film critic for Rappler. Currently serving as secretary of the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers (SFFR), Lé has also written for CNN Philippines Life, PhilSTAR Life, VICE Asia, Young STAR Philippines, among other publications. She is a fellow of the first QCinema International Film Festival Critics Lab.