Review by Sean Boelman
The Malaysian film Tiger Stripes debuted at the 2023 Cannes Semaine de la Critique, where it was met with a mostly warm reception. Although the coming-of-age horror story hits many familiar beats, it manages to be mostly effective thanks to a strong lead performance and assured direction.
The movie follows a girl who is the first among her friends in a tight-knit Muslim community to hit puberty, which causes her to experience unexpected — perhaps even horrifying — changes to her body. In a way, this is a body horror film, but that story almost feels secondary to the story of the protagonist attempting to cope with a community that is unfairly hostile towards her.
We’ve seen many horror and horror-adjacent movies where the thematic focus is on a girl’s coming-of-age — the most recognized of which is likely Carrie. However, what allows Tiger Stripes to stand out, even among a crowd of similarly-themed genre pictures, is its focus on cultural specificity and exploring these familiar and universal ideas in a way that is more distinctive.
There is a lot happening in this film, from the exploration of womanhood to the dissection of a society that can be somewhat misogynistic in its overzealous approach to tradition. Ultimately, the movie refuses to give the viewer any easy answers, which can be as frustrating as it is perplexing.
Although the protagonist of the film is compelling because of the way in which she is constantly mistreated by her community, this has some unfortunate side consequences. Although it seems clear that the movie is designed to comment on the “mob mentality” associated with religious communities such as the one in which it is set, this also makes the threat feel arguably non-specific.
Zafreen Zairizal’s performance in the leading role is superb, especially considering that this is her first ever on-screen turn. It’s a role that is demanding — both physically and emotionally — yet Zairizal manages to make everything feel entirely authentic. Even with sounds and expressions, not just dialogue, Zairizal is able to get an extraordinary level of emotion.
Visually, the film is somewhat restrained until the final act, which leans a bit more heavily into the fantasy elements. The pacing for the first two thirds is somewhat relaxed, only for the final act to kick things into overdrive and become truly unsettling and provocative. The final image of the movie creates a fascinating and effective parallelism that will stick with viewers long after the credits roll.
Although Tiger Stripes might be off-putting to some due to its pacing, it sticks the landing in a way that makes it stand out in a familiar genre. It would have been nice to see Amanda Nell Eu’s film cut a bit deeper, but it’s still a fascinating take on this story and themes.
Tiger Stripes screened at the 2023 Fantasia Film Festival, which runs from July 20 to August 9.