There is a bold and vibrant punky energy to Amanda Nell Eu‘s modern fairy tale that goes a long way towards mitigating some conflicting impulses. A coming of age tale set against the restrictive, conservative environment of rural Malaysia, Tiger Stripes finds its young heroine reacting to the early onset of puberty in alarming ways. In a narrative that sees a collision between tradition and modernity, repression and expression, and childhood and adolescence, it also struggles itself between highbrow and B-movie tendencies.

Zaffan (a puckish, spirited Zafreen Zairizal) is a rebellious 12-year-old and the de-facto leader of a group of schoolmate who love to make TikTok videos and act out as much as their strict upbringing will allow. When she becomes the first in her class to get her period she’s singled out as being different by the other girls, fearful of what she represents. To make matters worse, her body becomes covered in a vicious rash, her hair begins to fall out, and her her temper and body odour compete to see which is the most foul. Clearly, there’s something more extreme at work than the normal progress of puberty.

The clue to what is happening to Zaffan is in the film’s title, though Eu’s storytelling is restrained and in no rush to get there, immersing us in Zaffan’s world, as limited as it is. The film makes a virtue of a paltry number of locations – only counterintuitively addressing the wider world by narrowing the frame through videos on mobile phones. The constricted resources also explain why Eu holds off showing Zaffan’s ultimate transformation, with some shonky but charming visual effects used sparingly. The film works most successfully when depicting the more lowkey body horror that Zaffan suffers, and the headstrong way she deals with it, a heightening of her natural feistiness. The film is in shakier territory when her presence begins to induce hysterical fits in the other girls, the causes remain opaque and feel like a distraction from the central metaphor which does get a satisfying thematic payoff.

Tiger Stripes comes across like a remix of Ginger Snaps and The Falling directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. This arthouse sensibility clashes a little with the solidly B-movie premise at its core. While there’s nothing wrong with a horror film showing restraint, Ginger Snaps is ultimately more successful in it exploration of its monstrous puberty metaphor as it embraces the blood, claws, and teeth of it all. It’s also unclear where it all falls in terms of Zaffan. Are all the authority figures actually in her life reacting justifiably to her metamorphosis? Or is she becoming beastly because that’s how she’s unfairly being portrayed?

Such issues aside Tiger Stripes is a fine addition to the many works that have mined Angela Carter‘s celebrated ‘monstrous feminine’ approach to fable and fairy tale. There is a sense that it might have been a phenomenal B-movie if Eu had been willing to fully lean into the premise. Still, there will be a cross-section of horror fans who have love a more arthouse, or of the arty crowd who like a bit of grit, for whom this will hit a very sweet spot.

In selected cinemas from Fri 17 May 2024