Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — For 12-year-old Zafan (Zafreen Zairizal), going through puberty is a beast.When she discovers her body is deforming in horrific ways and her community marginalizes her, Zaffan has no choice but to accept her true self and reveal her beauty, anger and power to all
Amanda Nell Eu won’t reveal too much about the plot of “Tiger Stripes,” but her debut feature mixes themes of teenage body horror and female empowerment in a Southeast Asian setting, and will be created this month as the first film directed by a Malaysian woman. Historic debut at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
Tiger Stripes is the fourth and first in 13 years to be invited to the Malaysian film Goh Ming Chin at the Cannes Film Festival.
It will compete for the Grand Prix at the 62nd Semaine de la Critique (International Film Critics’ Week), from 17 to 25 May, a project dedicated to discovering first and second feature filmmakers from around the world. Famous directors such as Wong Kar Wai, Guillermo del Toro, Ken Loach and Gaspar Noe all got their start here.
“I’m honored. It’s something that me and my team have always dreamed of. I don’t think anyone is going to be ready for this because it’s a real punch,” Nell Eu, a Malaysian of mixed Chinese and British descent, told Al Jazeera .
“Jokes aside, I hope the themes and message of ‘Tiger Stripes’ resonate with a lot of people, and they’ll love the journey the film takes you on.”
Nell Eu had the idea for Tiger Stripes in early 2018 and spent the next two years doing a lot of development. “We did a lot of labs and workshops, and then eventually went into the international market as well,” she said.
The film will finally be shot in 2022 in the wilds of Selangor, east of the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, about two years after the COVID-19 pandemic halted work on the project. It stars Malaysian veteran actors Shaheizy Sam (Polis Evo 3, 2023), June Lojong (Roh, 2019) and Fatimah Abu Bakar (Imaginur, 2022) , in addition to three young and talented newcomer actresses – Zafrin, Tina Ezrael and Piqa, playing three Malay girls from a rural community.
Produced by Foo Fei Ling for Ghost Grrrl Productions, the independent Kuala Lumpur-based film company she co-founded with Nell Eu, Tiger Stripes is a co-production of Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Qatar.
The decision was partly motivated by the potential for tough action by the Malaysian Film Censorship Board against creative productions that touch on the multicultural nation’s most sensitive issues, from race to religion. Islam is the official religion of Malaysia and is practiced by more than half of the population.
“As a filmmaker, I completely understand the problem with censorship and I really try not to let it hold me back, especially when it comes to writing scripts and making films,” said Nell Eu.
“Maintaining the vision of a filmmaker, especially with a debut feature, has always been my number one priority as a producer,” Foo said. “However, it wasn’t easy to debut. That’s why we co-produced with several other countries, so we can say as much as we want.”
feminist body horror
Nell Eu says she is obsessed with horror, feminism and female monsters — a theme that Tiger Stripes shares with her two previous short films. Her 2017 debut, Lagi Senang Jaga Sekandang Lembu (Raising Cows Is Easier), premiered at the Venice International Film Festival and focuses on the friendship between two abandoned teenage girls in a remote village.
Her second short film, “The Vinegar Bath” (2018), tells the story of an overworked maternity ward nurse who is happiest when, walking up and down hospital corridors at night, she is finally able to eat. It won several festival awards, including Best Film in the Scream Asian Horror Short Film Competition.
“I’m a big fan of body horror. I just find it fascinating,” Nell Eu told Al Jazeera, citing the genre’s stalwart Canadian director David Cronenberg and visionary Japanese director Tetsuo: the Iron Man (1989 )’s Shinya Tsukamoto’s early influence.
“Creatively, I try to try to listen more to my body than to my thoughts, when I make a decision it’s my intuition, how I feel inside, and what makes me move towards something,” says Nell Eu.
The idea for Tiger Stripes arose from her memories of adolescence, when the director said she “felt like a monster” because her body changed and she didn’t like anyone looking at her.
“I think everyone at some point in their life is terrified of their own body. So yeah, with my dark sense of humor, what if the main character actually turned into a monster?”
To realize this vision, Tiger Stripes used a lot of special effects, makeup and stage props in the tradition of old monster movies.
“The challenge was that it meant five hours of application, which was tricky, especially when we were shooting in a tropical climate, which is the absolute worst environment to do special effects and makeup,” says Nell Eu.
Zaffan’s body modification was performed by a team of experienced makeup artists such as June Goh from Singapore and Dutch artist Rogier Samuels (who has also worked on international films such as The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Frontier and X personnel composition).
“Think about the challenge [the actress] Zafreen, sweating in it, when you take off the props, you see the steam come out… I’m so impressed with her. She is brave and committed. Her efforts are truly remarkable,” Nell Eu said.
Punk Rock Meets Asian Monsters
The name of Ghost Grrrl Productions, the Tiger Stripes production company co-founded by Foo and Nell Eu, pays homage to the feminist Riot Grrrl movement, an underground punk rock subculture centered on female empowerment that has grown in the US since the 1990s of the Pacific Northwest.
Its do-it-yourself, independent values inspired Nell Eu and Foo to pick production team members, make decisions and make “a movie that I think is very punk rock,” says Nell Eu.
Ghost Grrrl seeks to amplify the voices of strong, fearful and misunderstood women in film, especially those from Southeast Asia. “We’re all women, we’re both very feminist, we have a lot of beliefs in feminism and empowerment, and we also want to celebrate and have more diverse voices in the industry,” Nell Eu told Al Jazeera.
But what makes “Tiger Stripes” stand out from other female-driven horror films is its setting, which strongly recycles and questions the rich ghost folklore of Nell Eu and Foo’s hometown.
“Growing up in Malaysia is almost like growing up with ghosts, you hear ghost stories every night,” Foo said. “When I was a kid, I watched Hong Kong and Hollywood horror movies before going to bed, and the scariest monsters were always women.”
Nell Eu says she’s a big fan of pontianak (or kuntilanak in Indonesian), a vampire of a woman who died in childbirth, found in Southeast Asian maritime folklore.
“Tome, [the pontianak] Powerful and powerful, the perfect embodiment of a feminist,” said Nell Eu. “I take inspiration from these characters in our stories and culture and use them as inspiration. “
But at the same time, the director doesn’t try to fit herself into any genre or trend, even though she’s a fan of new wave Southeast Asian horror, especially those from Indonesian directors like Joko Anwar, Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto, who have a worldwide subscription-based has won praise from its streaming service.
Nell Eu said she’s not in a position to say where she fits in, or whether the Tiger Stripes will join the wave.
“I’ve always felt that this is a very personal story, and from a personal perspective, it becomes universal. After the release, we’ll see what the feedback is and what people’s reactions are, so it’s too early to draw conclusions.” It’s too early.”
While preparing for Cannes, Nell Eu was also in the early stages of planning a new feature film — a period drama set in pre-World War II colonial Malaya in the late 1930s.
“I loved that period, it was so colorful and so much happened,” she said. “Don’t worry, there are still genres, and there will still be passion.”