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A fierce feminist fable about the primal urge to roar in the face of societal scorn, “Tiger Stripes” is a force to be reckoned with.

Tiger Stripes

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Living in the United States, I’m routinely reminded of the dangers, limitations, and obstacles women face in nearly all aspects of life — from attacks on bodily autonomy to reduced access to adequate healthcare to inequity in career opportunities and earning potential. I’m fully aware that, despite these challenges, I enjoy a privileged position as an American compared to women in other countries who face far more restrictions and far harsher laws and punishments.

Perhaps nowhere are the deeply ingrained attitudes surrounding women’s sexuality more readily apparent than in the cultural perceptions and management of menstruation around the world.

From the silence and stigma in some cultures to the celebration and reverence in others, these attitudes significantly influence women’s sexual self-image and autonomy.

In Malaysia, where Tiger Stripes takes place, menstruation is a complex issue with a mix of cultural and societal influences. There can be a sense of stigma surrounding menstruation, particularly among older generations. Traditional beliefs may view menstruation as a time of impurity, with restrictions on religious activities or social interactions.

Formal education about menstruation is often limited in schools. This can lead to a lack of knowledge and misconceptions among young girls, resulting in feelings of shame and ostracization.

This is a dynamic explored in Tiger Stripes, an enchanting coming-of-age body horror about judgment and acceptance.

In the vein of Ginger Snaps and Raw, the debut feature from Malaysian writer-director Amanda Nell Eu explores female sexuality in grotesque and sublimely subversive ways.

The film follows a 12-year-old girl, Zaffan (a mesmerizing Zafreen Zairizal), who becomes the first of her friends to hit puberty. Ostracized by her friends, classmates, and the community, she fights back. In her effort to be free from scorn and shame, she must learn to embrace her wildly changing body and the terrifying secret power it holds.

When we first meet the exuberant young Zaffan, she’s fiercely independent, fearless, and dangerously provocative in the way she embraces Western culture and remains unashamed and unapologetic of her blossoming sexuality — despite attending a strict religious primary school in a deeply conservative community.

A clear leader among her friend group, the pretty and popular Zaffan is a wild spirit whose yearning for freedom puts her in direct opposition to the rigid establishment that demands she remain demure and obedient.

Zaff’s world is immediately turned upside down when she becomes the first girl in her class to get her period. She’s shamed and ridiculed, a smear campaign spearheaded by her envious and vicious former friend, Farah (Deena Ezral), who takes every opportunity to strip Zaff of her social status and usurp her as queen bee.

Discarded by her friends, openly mocked at school, and criticized at home, Zaff’s body responds to her fear and frustration, altering in startling and terrifying ways.

When she can no longer suppress her primal rage, causing panic and chaos at school, her parents take drastic measures to save her soul. However, this final indignity only further fuels Zaff’s beastly transformation.

It seems the only way for her to be free from torment is to fully embrace the monster she once feared and live her authentic self — no matter how far it separates her from the life and world she used to know.

Blending Malaysian folklore with body horror, Tiger Stripes is an inventive and haunting parable about the ways we demonize young women’s sexuality and attempt to shame freethinkers into conformity and dutiful obedience to societal norms.

The film World Premiered at Cannes Critics Week, where it walked away with the Grand Jury Prize for Best Feature.

That’s unsurprising given the impressive performances from the young actors, the visual artistry, the potent and powerfully delivered message, and the striking blend of genres — from dark comedy to drama to horror.

In a disappointing example of life imitating art, several scenes of the film were cut from the Malaysian release.

These cut scenes are critical to the gorgeously unfolding narrative, including a powerful scene in the finale that works exceedingly well to bring the film full circle and drive home the core message.

None of the cut scenes show overt sexuality, nudity, or violence. Rather, the “objectionable” content — like showing blood on a period pad — is merely reflective of the same cultural values Eu is masterfully critiquing.

Tiger Stripes may be more alluring to arthouse audiences, but this fierce feminist fable is an absolute triumph and a spellbinding calling card for Eu.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 4
Tiger Stripes will play in select cinemas starting June 14, 2024. It will be screened during the upcoming Film Maudit 2.0 on May 15, 2024, and it will arrive on VOD starting July 9, 2024.

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