Pre-teen body horror with a defiant tropical glow

It may be that what feeds most into what we call horror stories is a discomfort with the natural world. "Body horror" comes from our own unease with our bodies. Such an unease comes from the difficulty girls have in adjusting to menstruation. And as Wendy Ide says in her Guardian review of Tiger Stripes, it's "not the first film to harness body horror tropes as an allegory for the adolescent angst and the shame of female puberty." These include Pixar’s Turning Red and genre films like Carrie and Ginger Snaps, But this one, from Malaysia, full of young girls whose hijab-topped school uniforms make them look like graceful little white nuns, has a fresh tropical airiness, humor, and a TikTok modernity. It also combines teen girl bullying with Southeast Asian folklore and superstition. A Letterboxed description calls it a "quasi-punk parable" with a "Markedly vindictive and feminist character" and is "filmed with[the] grit and verve" of a debut album by a "Sex Pistols-type band."

Another aspect is the maternalistic nature of the muslim girls school, with its lineups and roll-calls and regular addresses out of doors by a sort of head nun with echoing PA system, and English class with sentences like "The father goes to work. The mother cooks at home." Within this highly organized structure, the girls are light-hearted and playful, none so much as the lead character, twelve-year-old Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal) the wildest of her circle of friends, who is the first to have her period. Her mates are not so much jealous as horrified at this alien, unsavory change in Zaffan they don't understand, which gives her a fishy smell like a beast. A real tiger gone loose is a metaphor with what is going to be Zaffan's eventual reaction to her external treatment and what's going on in her body.

The crude and simple special effects are variously excused or hailed as a plus here. Peter Bradshaw's Guardian review points out links to Brian De Palma, David Cronenberg and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The latter is a new element of tropical magic the traditional western genre specialists don't have and that is what most makes this movie worthy of your attention. It may seem odd, its rhythms jerky at times, but then there is an image of a house open to the outdoors, a deep green tropical forest's heart, or a half-naked girl dancing wildly in the water for an online video and you know you are in the presence of something fresh, and refreshing. The ideas may be better than the achievement at times, but you know this is vigorous and new. Film students might like to contrast this with William Friedkin's famous The Exorcist, which moviegoers lined up to see in San Francisco in 1973. All that slickness, all that noise in contrast to this lightness and DIY suggestion of reality.

Zaffan shocks her closely-bonded best girlfriends Farah (Deena Ezral) and Mariam (Piqa) because she is the wildest, and in the girls bathroom someone films her on their phone stripping off her uniform down to her underwear and dancing a wild dance, presumably for social media, but an utterly taboo act. The head teacher (Fatimah Abu Bakar) harangues the girls for their bad attitudes, and laments the fact that Chinese pupils beat the Malaysian in exam results.

At first Zaffan's "premature" body changes get her special treatment; then she feels ostracized and she feels, and becomes, more and more different than anyone expects. She starts seeing woodland creatures with burning eyes. Zaffan is really turning into a monster, although she snaps back and forth into normality. Bradshaw points out "the movie's strength could also be its weakness": that this flipping back and forth between the metaphorical and literal that is free and makes important points also weakens the film. It undermines what would be an otherwise effective scene where a fraudulent exorcist (Shaheizy Sam) tries and fails to tone Zaffan down. But the beauty of this bright, good looking film is that it leaves us with memories of unique places and moods, and that's what won made it a sensation at Cannes.

Tiger Stripes,95 mins., debuted May 17, 2023 in Cannes, winning the Critics' Week Grand Prize; also Malaysia's best foreign entry in the 2024 Academy Awards. Also in many festivals including Munich, Taipei, Neuchâtel, Montreal, Vancouver, Jakarta, Mumbai, others, with theatrical releases in various countries including Norway, the UK, and France. US release Jun. 14, 2024, internet Jul. 9. Mixed reviews on Metacritic: rating 66%.