Hear her roar
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Hear her roar

Tiger Stripes, a Malaysian film that just won the top prize at Cannes Critics' Week, is a coming-of-age story armed with claws and fangs

Hear her roar
Tiger Stripes. (Photo courtesy of Cannes film festival)

The image of a girl taking off her hijab is wrought with cinematic symbolism. Kamila Andini shows it in her Indonesian film Yuni (2021); Hesome Chemamah in his Thai short I'm Not Your F*cking Stereotype (2019); Ana Lily Amirpour in the Iranian vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014). Subversion? Provocation? Liberation? At this year's Cannes Film Festival, we see that image in Amanda Nell Eu's Tiger Stripes, a work as playful as it is potent in its portrayal of adolescence and what it entails for a young woman's body.

On Wednesday, Tiger Stripes won the Grand Prix, the top prize in the Semaine de la Critique section, becoming the first-ever Malaysian film to be honoured at Cannes.

A feature debut by Eu, Tiger Stripes follows the literal and figurative transformation of Zaffan, a 12-year-old Muslim girl in a village at the edge of a forest somewhere in present-day Malaysia. Zaffan is bubbly and a little bolder than the other girls in her gang. She giggles as she tries on a new bra and displays a natural confidence in her still-growing body. She splashes about in a stream and casually removes her head cover to the dismay of her friends. And then her period starts -- earlier than the rest of her classmates. From the first blood on, Zaffan experiences a radical transformation -- or rather, a transfiguration -- as the lovely village girl slowly morphs into a roaring force of nature beyond the comprehension of her kind but conservative parents.

Tiger Stripes is a folk fable set firmly in the TikTok age. It borrows from local myth as much as from David Cronenberg's body horror. It features a Muslim exorcist as well as a schoolgirl slap-fest filmed on a phone by a gaggle of bullies. It's cheerful and serious, hopeful and cautionary. And it skirts around the simple label of "a feminist film about an angry hijab girl" to become something a little bit more.

However cinematic the image of uncovered Zaffan is, Eu feels it differently -- what Zaffan does in the film is the most natural thing in the world.

"I don't intend to push the envelope or to be radical, and I don't see the film as extreme or controversial," Eu says in an interview with the Bangkok Post in Cannes.

"All girls are similar all over the world. They want to try the same things, they see the same TikTok videos, and they're all curious about their body. I want to explore that and show that girls always want to be girls.

"The film is not about Islam. It's about the jungle and the mysticism around it. That's what gives the story an edge. But also, we have the character of Dr Raheem [an Islamic exorcist], which is very much rooted in the Southeast Asian culture. With this character, what I'm trying to say is it's not about religion -- it's about the abuse of people's belief. Religion is not dangerous; it's how some people abuse it that is."

In earlier drafts of the script, Eu tells us, Tiger Stripes is a heavy coming-of-age drama that probes Zaffan's growing pains through the change in her body. But Eu is a fan of horror films, and soon she also realised the potential of her story as a fairy tale set in modern times -- sort of a brown-skinned version of The Ugly Duckling. And when she got to work with her young actresses (Zafreen Zairizal as Zaffan and others in the gang), she benefitted from their camaraderie and natural chemistry that eventually gives the film its lively, at times tongue-in-cheek tone.

"The film is not based on any specific local story," Eu says. "But at the same time, you know that in different parts of Southeast Asia -- or even in different parts of Malaysia -- there are different versions of similar folk stories. Say, about the were-tiger. I think of my film as my own version of such a folk story.

"The girls in the film got along so well because we spent a lot of time working with them. We had workshops not just about acting, but about sex education and about positivity. We created this environment where we had a safe space in which everyone could discuss their insecurities or what they'd been through in school. We built this bond and trust, and by the time we were on set, they were actually good friends. That's the idea of the film -- we're entering this world where girls can share everything among each other."

The ending of Tiger Stripes -- not to give anything away -- is the starting point of a longer debate. Is it liberation, subversion, provocation or punishment? "It depends on how you see the world," Eu says, "but all I do is be honest with my story and my characters."

Tiger Stripes is likely to come to Thailand later this year in one of the film festivals.

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