Thursday, July 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Tiger Stripes’ Rebels Against the Patriarchal Prison

Director: Amanda Nell Eu
Writer: Amanda Nell Eu
Stars: Zafreen Zairizal, Deena Ezral, Piqa

Synopsis: An 11-year-old girl who is carefree until she starts to experience horrifying physical changes to her body.

Menarche and menstruation tales run through folklore and fairytales in almost every culture. Although some scholars make a distinction between mythology and folklore, they do tend to have crossovers when dealing with matters of the body (as opposed to finding explanations as to why it rains and the like). ‘Eve’s curse’ would be the most obvious example in the Judeo-Christian bible, but even apocryphal or syncretic texts such as tales of Lilith (Lilit, Lamia) the one who does not bend to Adam is demonic and a shapeshifter. Sleeping Beauty is a menarche tale with the pricking of the princess’ finger on a spindle representing the shift into maidenhood – one that shares her curse with a kingdom. Werewolf tales have obvious connotations with the moon cycle and the menstrual cycle (The Company of Wolves and Ginger Snaps). Amanda Nell Eu’s Malaysian coming-of-age fantastique Tiger Stripes uses the image of the harimu jaidan or weretiger as an avatar of change for the pre-teen protagonist, Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal) is experiencing bodily.

Zaffan and her friends Farah (Deena Ezral) and Mariam (Piqa) are in their final year of primary school and studying for their exams. Zaffan is already a wild thing – dancing with abandon to pop music in the bathrooms. Zaff is a lot freer than Farah and Mariam, but her freedom is based in innocence and curiosity. She wears a bra she found somewhere, experimenting with womanhood but not ready for it. Womanhood means shame. In a society where ignorance about female bodies and desire is built into patriarchal control does a girl want to ‘grow up’?

Walking home after school the girls place puffy stickers on signs showing a rural Malaysia caught between emerging capitalism and provincialism. The lush forest is the place Zaff inhabits with an abandon that Farah resents. Zaff isn’t afraid to pull off her hijab and throw herself into the local watering hole. Generally, Zaff isn’t afraid until she is made to fear. The thing she is made to fear the most is her own body, and, in turn, her body becomes a site of fear.

Zaff’s mother, Munah (June Lojong) has told her daughter nothing of what will happen to her body once she begins menstruating. All a shocked Zaff is told is that she is “dirty now,” and handed a sanitary product and told to wash. Farah’s jealousy of Zaff is given free rein as she moves to ostracize her through organized bullying. Mariam watches with confusion as her friend becomes ‘other’ to everyone. Stories of a wild woman called Ina circulate; a woman who lives in a tree sent there because she did not keep herself clean. Before Zaff’s body begins to shift into something else it is already monstrous in the eyes of her classmates. Zaff is a ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ who stinks and brings with her evil spirits according to Farah and her new coterie of followers.

Zaff is changing shape. Small things which could be explained by hormonal changes such as hair loss, changes in appetite, and skin issues become, over time, her becoming a supernatural being. But as disturbing as these changes are initially and as painful and grotesque; they are not where the fear in Eu’s work resides. Zaff becomes a shadow of her former self because she is oppressed by women and girls acting on behalf of a religious and social environment which has made them loathe themselves. Zaff hides in plain sight for as long as she can trying to fit in with what is expected of her until her animal power is provoked and lashes out.

Amanda Nell Eu is bringing a specifically South Asian flavor to an old tale, but she is also placing it specifically in the context of Malaysia now. A place where women hold jobs but are still taught ‘The father goes to work’ and ‘The mother cooks at home’ in English language classes. Where girls participate in Cadet activities and are expected to do well in school to get scholarships yet are bound by cultural shame over a biological function.

Zaff is considered a point of contagion where other women and girls begin to experience mass psychogenic reactions when in contact with her. An exorcist is called in (something which is remarkably common) to rid the school and community of the evil inside a girl. Dr. Rahim (Shaheizy Sam) and his obvious scam to provide spiritual purity to the area and stop the hysteria does more harm than a ‘tiger’ being left alone.

Amanda Nell Eu’s Tiger Stripes employs its fantastical elements with a deft hand. The film isn’t asking the viewer to see realistic ‘monsters’ in the girls and women who have been ostracized, because they aren’t monsters at all. For Mariam, Zaff is her friend who is just one step ahead of her in the line to self-actualization. Whatever has taken hold of Zaff isn’t a threat to Mariam but rather something intoxicating and liberating. Instead of forming part of a pack who would hunt Zaff down, she asks her friend to show her the ‘UwU’ – reminding the audience that they are young girls.

Tiger Stripes is sharp-clawed but soft-pawed. Eu is angry at the patriarchal prison which cages girls and sees their emerging bodies and desires as monstrous. Inside the anger, however, is a story about a young rebel, her best friend, and the beauty of their ferocity when they no longer have to keep it hidden. A thrilling addition to the empowered rebel and feral girl canon.

Grade: B+

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