Amanda Nell Eu’s “Tiger Stripes,” which had its premiere this week in Cannes Film Festival’s Critics’ Week, is being celebrated as a punchy female-driven debut feature and as the first film by a Malaysian woman director in any section Cannes.
The story focuses on a small group of 11 or 12-year-old girls. When one of the friends enters puberty she finds her body changing in unexpected ways. Relations with her friends and family start morphing too. Eu’s finished film straddles the metaphorical drama and body horror genres.
“Tiger Stripes” is also a triumph for the now highly-developed global network of project markets, talent development programs, script and production workshops (often labelled as ‘labs’) and grant schemes. These are intended to encourage diversity and nurture film-making talent in countries where that is a rarity or where commercial films crowd out more experimental art-house titles.
In addition to cash and training, many project markets provide a speed-dating like environment where dozens of one-on-one meetings with potential co-producers, financiers, distributors and festival selectors can be arranged in just two or three days.
Twenty years ago, when the project market scene was led by Rotterdam’s CineMart, Hong Kong’s HAF, Busan’s PPP and a handful of others, and bursaries were scarcer, projects counted themselves lucky to get one or two invitations. Now, with hundreds of festivals having sprouted ‘industry support’ functions, it is more common that a favored film will make three or four such stops.
“Tiger Stripes” has at least seven project development credits and is officially an eight-territory coproduction involving Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Indonesia and Qatar.
Variety is aware of “Tiger Stripes” having attended: the Locarno festival’s Open Doors program; the Network of Asian Fantastic Films at Korea’s BiFan fantasy festival (where it won an award from another genre festival, Sitges); the Talents Tokyo event (where it won the Talents Tokyo Award in 2018, as well as the NMSP Project Development Fund in 2019; the Hubert Bals Fund Bright Future award at the Rotterdam festival; the Less is More event backed by France’s Le Group Ouest, by Italy’s Ties that Bind and the (now defunct) SEAFIC Lab in Thailand.
“When we started me and my producer were both very new to the industry. It is also big step to move from shorts to a feature film, to produce it and co-produce it. So, when I first pitched it to her, we had a plan to do workshops and try to learn as much as we can,” Eu told Variety.
“We didn’t even know what the end goal was. It was basically just to learn every step of the way, apply to everything so that we could gain more knowledge. I needed to learn how to write a good script. Hence the script labs. And then I wanted to figure out how to do co-productions. Hence the producer labs. And the grants.
“Everything was just step by step. It was like, let’s do the script labs, then after that let’s do the project markets. And eventually we were there with a finished film. And through that experience, of course, you end up building a network and learning about film funding as well.”
Eu had previously attended film school in the U.K. where she had spent many of her teenage years, but she says that academic learning is no substitute for hands-on experience. “What I learned [at school] was the basics of cameras and actors. But all this big wide world stuff comes from actually going out there and experiencing it, going to the festivals and learning more,” says Eu.
Eu says that the film’s Cannes firsts are significant. “Actually, they mean quite a lot to me. Not specifically being the first female director, but it has been a long time since Malaysia has been represented in Cannes. The last may have been 13 years ago. So, it’s very exciting to kind of be there and to represent Malaysia.”
That in itself is a significant step for Eu, who says that she was unsure of her bi-cultural, bi-racial Malaysian-British identity. Only when she returned to Malaysia and started making short films as an independent did she find her voice and determine what she wanted to say.
“A big inspirational point of this film is folktales and fairy tales. We have a lot of these kind of horror-folk tales in Southeast Asia. Another inspiration is the ugly duckling [concept]. The ugly duckling who is growing, everyone’s projecting, and [then] realizes that she’s a beautiful swan. That made it instinctive to set it in this kind of like once-upon-a-time rural village far, far away.”
“Fairy tales talk a lot about patriarchal authority. And so, the way I talk about the adults in the film is very much from the child’s point of view. The adults in the school are almost caricatures. That was how I felt as well, when I was a kid. You don’t see teachers as human beings. You see them as these authoritative figures.”
Eu says that research and script development were painstaking processes, as well as flashbacks to older times. “During research, we would sit and hide incognito, listening to school assemblies. Sometimes, I didn’t even have to write [fresh] dialogue. It was literally word for word.”