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Tiger Stripes

Completely bonkers, female-made Asian horror about schoolgirl slowly morphing into a tiger neither scares nor astounds viewers - from the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival

Billed as a “feminist horror”, the first Malaysian film to win the Best Feature at Cannes Critics’ Week has an interesting premise with strong echoes of Brian de Palma’s revenge horror Carrie (1976), and perhaps even a touch of David Cronenberg’s tragic and gruesome metamorphosis tale The Fly (1986). Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal), a prepubescent girl around the age of 11, studies in a girls’ school (all of them wearing a head cover) bang in the middle of the rainforest. She gets repeatedly bullied in the toilet by other students (this may vaguely recall Carrie‘s shower scene), particularly after having her first period.

Our hapless protagonist begins to mutate into a tiger, the bizarre body changes surfacing little by little. An unusually long and thick hair grows on her face, then a fingernail collapses. Her literal claws eventually come out, alongside with protruding veins and muscles on both her hands and feet. Her eyes turn fluorescent purple. She crawls into the forest and growls, while also developing a taste for climbing trees (real tigers can easily climb trees, yet they seldom do so).

Zaffan’s parents begin to suspect that there’s something wrong. Her mother evicts her because she refuses to exhibit her arms, presumably because the mutations are beginning to show. The school and also the community decide to take action. They are convinced that there is a demon inside the Zaffan.

None of the developments are distinctly scary. The relentlessly screaming schoolgirls fail to built any sort of tension, instead hurting my ears. And none of the intended scares are effective. You are more likely do doze off than to jump, or to recoil into the edge of your seat. The imagery isn’t particularly sombre, either. Cinematographer Jimmy Gimferrer opts mostly for daylight scenes, and it is the verdant, towering vegetation that stands out. Nothing is conducive to goosebumps.

Also described as an art film, Tiger Stripes does not boast extensive artistic merit. The special effects are very poor, and the full-on metamorphosis looks like a Rio de Janeiro Carnival costume, with a ridiculous moustache and tail. The film would have benefitted from more subtle devices. Horror is often far more effective when you don’t show the twisted, the bizarre, the supernatural and the gruesome. The images and the fears that audiences that concoct in their head can be a lot more powerful than cheap props and make-up.

This isn’t a feminist movie either, with mean and hysterical schoolgirls either catatonic or screaming and wailing on the floor, unable to fend for themselves or to help their fellow student. Not a role model of sorority and female empowerment.

As a results, Tiger Stripes isn’t arty, but trashy instead. And unwittingly so. This is a movie that takes itself seriously. On the other hand, Zairiza deserves credit for her arresting performance, as does the film as a whole for catapulting a female director from a country with a very small and mostly unknown film industry into the Cannes spotlight. But that’s about it. There’s little remarkable about this 95-minute film.

Tiger Stripes showed at the 40th Munich Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. It premiered earlier this year at Cannes Critics’ Week. It also shows in the Midnight Shivers section of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, and at the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 26-06-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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