From our special correspondent in Cannes – A young girl’s experience of puberty gets the body-horror treatment in Amanda Nell Eu’s playfully rebellious “Tiger Stripes”, the first feature by a Malaysian female director to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. FRANCE 24 spoke to Eu about the making of the movie and its universal message.
A bold and stirring debut feature, “Tiger Stripes” offered an original take on the experience of menstrual metamorphosis – and a welcome distraction from the relentless rain that has dampened the mood here in Cannes.
Its Cannes screening, part of the Critics’ Week sidebar, was met with warm applause from a large and varied audience that included teenage pupils on a school outing.
One student said she saw a “universal message” in the film, noting that “difference isn’t always accepted – in France, too”. Another said it was important that male students saw it as well, though joking that “the boys in the class probably didn’t get the message”.
There are hardly any male characters in this female-centred movie, aside from a sweet but apathetic father and a charlatan guru who takes it upon himself to “drive the monster” out of the film’s menstruating protagonist – live on social media.
“Tiger Stripes” is powered by an exhilarating trio of TikTok-savvy first-time actresses whom Eu and her casting director initially reached out to on social media, owing to Covid-19 restrictions.
Set largely in the strict environment of a Muslim school for girls, it explores the wildly shifting dynamics at play between feisty 12-year-old Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal) and her two best friends once she gets her period and starts experiencing other, frightening bodily changes that lead to her ostracisation.
Rejecting or taming the “monster” in Zaffan is as cruel as it is futile, the movie points out, in a defiant call to lift taboos on the female body and sexuality.
Can you talk us through the premise of your film and why you chose to draw on the monster genre?
I love to tell stories that are inspired by my own body and emotions, and that’s how it really started. I was thinking about what it was like when I was growing up, with puberty. It’s my weird sense of humour that to me puberty is like a body horror [film], because one night you look one way and then the next day you wake up and things have grown on you – and if you don’t know what’s happening to you it can be quite terrifying. I remember it was quite violent the way I rejected my changes and really didn’t want it to happen.
As a young girl you’re always told that you’re emotional, you’re hysterical. But you’re really going through a lot of things and sometimes you’re labelled as a monster. And so I thought, ‘Let me show a young girl who really does turn into a monster and what a monster really is’.
Why did you opt for a rural Malaysian setting?
I really wanted to tell a fairy tale and in that sense you never really know in what village or part of Malaysia it is. It’s always this idea of ‘once upon a time there was a young girl who lived far, far away’. Of course we have the jungle, society surrounded by wild nature, and I thought that was a nice idea for a fairy tale.
What would you say is specifically Malaysian, or Southeast Asian, about your film, in terms of its setting, themes and influences?
There’s the idea that monsters, ghosts or spirits – we have many names for them – are very much part of our community, and they’re also very much linked to nature. We believe there are many spirits living in trees, in waterfalls, in rivers. That was very inspiring, because I absolutely love the power that nature has. And to have that represented in a young girl was very exciting.
Of course the folk tales, the monsters, even the prosthetics were an homage to Malaysian B-movies from the 1950s and ‘60s, by the Shaw Brothers in particular. Those movies were always very gnarly and strange, and that was definitely something that I wanted to show on-screen.
How much did the film’s young cast inform and shape your movie during filming?
A lot! Of course I wrote the script and had my ideas of how it was going to be, but you throw all that away when you start auditioning and meeting talents. I love that they would always surprise me with their own personalities, their own experiences. It was very important to be with them every step of the way, moving with them, because they have so much energy that they want to unleash.
It’s also very much part of my personality. I do like crazy colours and bizarre things, and my personality worked well with the girls’ energy. I’m so connected to the girls; we could share and open up on whatever we were feeling. When we watched the film together yesterday it was so emotional just looking at their faces.
There’s a lot of love and hate between the girls on-screen; was it important to show that sorority is not a given?
I grew up in all-girls schools, so I know the experience where you love and support your best friend but you also really hate her and there’s jealousy and miscommunication. They go hand in hand and I love exploring female friendships that way. That was the balance of the film: to show both love and jealousy, and differences, and how you overcome that and support each other.
Zaffan’s is a lonely journey but it was important to show that you’re not alone if you share your experiences and stand proud.
It’s a universal message?
Telling the story of what happens to young girls is incredibly universal. There are so many parts of the world where women or young girls fear their own bodies or don’t have ownership of their bodies. There [are] people in power always dictating what they’re supposed to look like, what they’re supposed to wear, what they’re allowed to do and how they’re supposed to behave. It’s not just in Malaysia, it’s all over the world.
How does it feel to be the first female director from Malaysia with a feature here in Cannes?
It’s a mixed feeling. I don’t want to be pinpointed as a woman and yet at the same time I represent that voice and I’m so happy that I get to have my crazy voice represented here, because we don’t have that many female directors back home. It has also been many years since a Malaysian film has been represented in Cannes and so I hope this will help pave the way for more films that make it to the international market.
This story originally appeared on France24