You don’t need a gross visual metaphor to articulate the horrifying transformation we all undergo during puberty – but it certainly can help. The history of genre cinema is rife with adolescent allegories, from the straightforward telekinesis metaphor of Stephen King’s Carrie, to the superpowered changes that Peter Parker goes through to become a “man” (albeit, one of the Spider variety). In the past year alone, we’ve seen tweens transform into giant pandas (Turning Red) and deal with feathered doppelgangers (Finnish oddity Hatching) as part of their unique coming-of-age journeys, and now the time has come for someone to experience this change via a Cronenbergian transformation into a tiger.
But in the case of the feature directorial debut of Amanda Nell Eu, which is making history as the first effort by a female Malaysian director to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this week, the real horrors don’t come from the metamorphosis. Set within a deeply religious community, the film follows 12-year-old Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal) as she gets her first period, an event which quickly leads to her getting ostracised by her peers; friends turn to bullies under the influence of a widely repeated folk tale about a girl who fled the village and transformed into a tiger not long after that first time of the month. It’s the kind of nonsense talk you expect to hear from kids on the playground at that age, an obvious lie likely passed down from older children who know better and can exploit their lack of lived experience, which is treated with utAmost sincerity here.
Within Eu’s world, transformation isn’t a myth, but a fact – albeit one that exists as a broad metaphor for learning to embrace and live as your true self, no matter how much society attempts to confine you. It’s within these scare-free horror sequences that the movie is at its worst, the limitations of the low budget most clearly exposed via Halloween-store horror makeup, and CG enhancements which look like Instagram filters that give users piercing red eyes. This admittedly helps to make sure it isn’t too inappropriate for the younger audience who would most benefit from seeing a movie with this positive message, but it feels unnecessary; the writer/director manages to convey her themes in a palatable way before she begins to fully embrace her horror influence, which feels surplus to requirements upon arrival.
This is because the most horrifying sequences happen entirely outside of the animalistic transformation and the embrace of a borderline fairytale conceit about a hidden monster living in the jungle. The film’s depiction of growing up in a religious community which teaches young girls to internalise shame about their changing bodies, ostracising them the second they start to experience puberty, is quietly harrowing. Zaffan goes from boisterous class clown to a sidelined victim of bullying within days, a process which unfolds realistically and without sensationalism: it grounds the drama so effectively, it’s something of a surprise that my disbelief couldn’t be suspended more as we arrived in full-blown horror territory later on. But then, nothing about the cut-price Cronenberg theatrics (right down to her nails peeling off, The Fly-style) could ever be as horrifying as watching the spread of the bullying – starting with whispers in the bathroom, before coming directly face-to-face, with even the school teachers seemingly indifferent to stop its spread.
The third act gives us monsters and decapitations, and further fairytale parallels as the community comes together, as in Beauty and the Beast, to try to banish this supposed demon which is spreading a curse among the town’s children. But none of it proves as effective as these earlier stretches; metaphor may be an ingenious way to craft an accessible story about puberty, but in the case of Tiger Stripes, it’s much more powerful when it hits close to home.
Written by Alistair Ryder
View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, and art, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop / K-music, and Asian music in general, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, music, and arts, worldwide.