Tiger Stripes director Amanda Nell Eu talks body horror, censorship, and influences

TIGER STRIPES, courtesy of Dark Star Pictures
TIGER STRIPES, courtesy of Dark Star Pictures /

Writer/director Amanda Nell Eu’s Tiger Stripes isn’t the first horror film to use body horror as a way to explore puberty and bodily changes. That said, the Malaysian film is one of the most unique takes on the sub-genre that we’ve had in quite a while. It’s also a film that seamlessly merges genres, from body horror, to possession, to a coming-of-age drama with a dash of Mean Girls.

The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2023, where it won the Critics’ Week Grand Prize. Tiger Stripes follows the story of Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal), who lives in a small, rural Malaysian village. Once puberty hits, her body undergoes some frightening changes, alienating her at school and causing mass hysteria.

We spoke with Eu about the film’s concept, the tiger transformation scenes, and the censorship the film faced in her home country of Malaysia.

1428 Elm: How did you develop the concept for this film?

Amanda Nell Eu: I was making a lot of short films before this that were dealing with the female body and being inspired by folklore characters that we have in Malaysia. I came to the realization that the characters I feared as a kid and that people still fear today I think are really cool and I want to be one of them. I look up to them and relate to them a lot more than humans at times. I was making shorts with these themes, and it was just a natural progression.

For my first feature, I wanted to explore the idea of what the social expectations are for a young girl when she goes through puberty and her life changes overnight and she’s treated differently. She’s no longer treated like a child. She has to learn all of this baggage that women have to deal with in their everyday lives.

That was really where it started, but with that sense of humor that horror has and my love for monsters. It just came naturally that I wanted a story about this young girl going through puberty who turns into an actual monster, while at the same time, having so much love for her, while talking about social expectations. I also wanted to be playful and set it in Maylasia like a fairytale.

1428 Elm: Malaysia itself, especially the jungle, very much feels like a character in this film. Can you talk about the influence of the landscape on your film? It’s both beautiful and terrifying.

Amanda Nell Eu: I think that’s exactly what the jungle is, isn’t it? It’s wild, dark, and so beautiful, yet so raw and really terrifying. It holds a lot of creatures that you’ve never seen before or don’t want to come across.

At the same time, within the culture here, it holds a lot of energy that’s supernatural. A lot of our belief of the supernatural comes from the jungle, comes from trees, comes from waterfalls. There is this respect for nature that we have in our beliefs, but there’s also a disrespect for it with deforestation and destroying all the nature. We all know that’s a thing that happens a lot. It’s a weird balance that I think was really interesting about the jungle.

Me, personally, I love the jungle and how beautiful it is. I think that was a great space to talk about what’s happening to this young girl. She is incredibly wild, raw, and terrifying. I think the jungle is a perfect setting for her. It’s also where she feels safest. I also wanted to contrast that with school, home, and society and question where is scarier.

TIGER STRIPES, courtesy of Dark Star Pictures /

1428 Elm: It’s my understanding that this film had some censorship issues in Malaysia. Can you speak to that?

Amanda Nell Eu: We had to do a theatrical release for Oscar-qualifying reasons. We went through the censorship board. All films in Malaysia, if you’re going to show it publicly, need to go through a censorship board licensing event. It was an incredibly painful process. I tried to explain to them where I came from. At the end of the day, it was heavily censored, in my opinion, where it lost the point of the film, including so much beauty of this young girl. The whole film is really about fighting for the voice of this young girl and her own unique freedom and her own way of expressing herself. That’s the entire point of the film. I couldn’t stand by it and had to say something.

At the end of the day, though, Malaysians were excited about this film. It did really well internationally. People wanted to watch it, so I had to say something that it wasn’t the film that won the accolades out of the country. It was one of the rare times, I think, where a director told an audience not to go to the cinema, at least in Malaysia. [Laughs].

1428 Elm: Some of the scenes Zaffan goes through as her body changes, especially when she’s bullied by her classmates, are quite intense. What was it like filming some of those sequences, especially the ones that take place at school?

Amanda Nell Eu: Those scenes are scenes that happen in reality all the time in the schools here. Even just last week, there was another viral video of a girl being traumatized by her schoolmates. It’s a very common occurrence here.

Shooting this, there was a lot of work needed. I did a lot of acting workshops with the girls. I had a professional acting coach. I remember telling the acting coach that it was so important to work with them and stress the distance that it takes because some of these situations can be so real to them. It’s what they hear about when they go to school. I was really careful planning and talking about the idea of playing and the idea of acting, as opposed to it actually being real. That was so much work.

I do think one of the funniest and most terrifying days was called hysteria day. It was meant to play with the idea of being completely terrified and then releasing that with the energy of screaming and emotion. I remember seeing that in our workshops. It just struck such a chill in me that it had to be in the film, for sure.

TIGER STRIPES, courtesy of Dark Star Pictures /

1428 Elm: Can you talk about how you developed the creature design? It looks really gnarly!

Amanda Nell Eu: I think gnarly is the perfect word for it. It really comes from the folklore characters that we have in this region. We have really absurd and bizarre creatures that aren’t as elegant as you would expect. Here, we have flying heads with entrails attached and babies who are buckled up and then explode.

They are very strange. We also have a lot of half-human/half-animal stories in this region. That was something I really wanted to stay true to. It took a long time. I tried to describe the look of the creature. It had to be ugly and bizarre, yet really powerful and somehow glorious, but not beautiful. Everyone said they didn’t get it. [Laughs].

But then I explained the imagery we have in our folklore, but also this imagery in a particular horror digest called Mastika in Malaysia. It’s out of print now, but it was really big in the 80s and 90s. They used to have these watercolor images on their covers.

They were really strange, to the point it was comical but also kind of creepy. You’d be so interested in reading the stories inside because the covers were so perverse. That’s the sort of flavor we had in some of our supernatural stories and I wanted to stay true to that in Tiger Stripes.

1428 Elm: Can you discuss some of your references and overall inspirations for the film? I thought of Ginger Snaps and even Mean Girls, but what other films were some touchstones for you when filming this?

Amanda Nell Eu: Definitely Mean Girls was a big influence. Even growing up, I loved that film. What I always loved about horror is that you could see females be evil and be selfish, and it was deliciously selfish and wicked. Mean Girls was the first time, as a young person, that I saw characters be so horrible to each other and yet be so real and relatable.

Aside from that, definitely one of the big influences for Tiger Stripes visually was Hausu, this 1970s Japanese horror film. It’s really bizarre and a horror comedy. There’s flying heads, cats, and bleeding walls. It’s a story about a bunch of teenage girls going on holiday in the middle of nowhere. It goes nuts. I love that film so much. I worked with the DOP to just make the colors more mental. The orange and the sunset had to be ridiculous, like a fantasy sunset.  Hausu was a big inspiration.

This interview was edited slightly for clarity. Tiger Stripes is now available globally on VOD.

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