- Queens of the Qing Dynasty
- Written and directed by Ashley McKenzie
- Starring Sarah Walker and Ziyin Zheng
- Classification N/A; 122 minutes
- Opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto March 3, Ottawa and Winnipeg March 10, and Vancouver March 17
The new Canadian film Queens of the Qing Dynasty is both the most unexpected and perfect follow-up that any fan of Ashley McKenzie, one of this country’s most exciting filmmakers, could possibly anticipate.
Some reading this review may already be asking, in that polite Canadian way, “Ashley who?” Which is unfortunately fair: The Cape Breton Island filmmaker burst onto this country’s film scene in 2016, when her debut feature Werewolf, about a pair of drug addicts meandering across Nova Scotia, floored critics during its Toronto International Film Festival premiere.
But despite that beautifully realized drama going just about as far as any micro-budget Canadian film can hope to go – stops at various Canadian festivals post-TIFF, plus a Berlinale international premiere, plus several Canadian Screen Award nominations, plus winning the $100,000 Toronto Film Critics Association prize for best Canadian film of that year – McKenzie’s film only reached so many audiences. It remains, like so many wonderfully tiny Canadian films, a masterpiece in the margins.
Which is all the more reason to be praising Queens of the Qing Dynasty from the street corners, theatre lobbies, rooftops – any public space you can find. Not only does McKenzie’s new film offer a levelling up of her ambitions and vision – this is a film made with sharper eyes and a more confident sense of control than Werewolf – but it confirms her as one of the more original, unpredictable voices in Canadian storytelling.
Following two lost Cape Breton souls struggling to anchor themselves in a world that feels strange and hostile, McKenzie’s film focuses on the teenage Star (Sarah Walker) and the twentysomething An (Ziyin Zheng). The two meet after Star is admitted to hospital following a suicide attempt, and An is assigned to watch over her as part of a volunteer outreach program.
Initially, the pair seem to share little common ground. Star comes from a broken home stacked floor to ceiling with trauma, and seems perpetually lost inside her phone, where text messages and online videos offer unspoken clues to unlocking her past. An, meanwhile, is an international student from Shanghai, genderqueer and unsure what to make of this cold, beige country that they now call home. Yet slowly and carefully, Star and An form an unexpectedly intense relationship that finds shared purpose in escaping the institutions they’ve become trapped by. Through conversation and just being present for one another, they form a love that is deep and affectionate, one that exists beyond the mere binaries of sex.
What might initially sound like an exercise in Maritime miserablism – what, in other hands, might so easily descend into that increasingly metastasizing indie-cinema genre of trauma porn – is instead a delightfully playful, energetic and extraordinarily empathetic work. While McKenzie is extending the themes that she previously explored in Werewolf – the thrills and dangers of codependency, how easy it is for people to become stuck in one place – she is also stretching the limits of Canadian cinema (low budgets, few locations, handful of performers) to create something elastic, thrilling, new.
Queens of the Qing Dynasty is as much a stark character drama as it is a hazy, heady fairy tale, one that exists with one foot in the hard-edged reality we know and the other in a more fantastical realm. By deftly mixing styles and techniques – social realism, abstract animation, and kitschy virtual reality, all backgrounded by an electronic wall of sound that feels piped in from an alternate reality – the film exudes a restless, skin-prickling energy that cannot be easily imagined, nor shaken.
Take the extended scene in which Star goes off the grid, staying with friends in a motel. As the teen falls deeper into this scuzzy, dangerous void – alternatively free and trapped as ever – McKenzie uses the sequences to peel away layers of the character’s persona, revealing a person and her world in ways that a thousand pages of monologues could never hope to achieve. The same goes for the passing, tender glimpses that the film offers of An’s true romantic yearnings.
At so many points, it feels as if the film is answering questions that its audience never considered asking, but are grateful to know all the same. The film is simply operating at a speed constantly one click ahead of expectations, never satisfied that any one viewer could know where it might all be heading.
So much of Queens’ strengths, naturally, rest on the shoulders of its stars, which is where McKenzie scores again. Both Walker and Zheng entered the production with baked-in challenges set in front of them – Star is based on a real-life friend of McKenzie’s whom she met while making Werewolf, while An is based on Zheng’s own life, a kind of co-creation between performer and filmmaker. Their work here thus necessitates a blending of reality and fiction, of personal stories and imagined histories, that is difficult to be faked or imitated. Yet Walker and Zheng display a naturalism that arrives absent any wink or nod to whatever might have happened, or continue to be happening, off-screen. The resulting performances are the kind of absorbing, rich accomplishments that you can only sit back and marvel at.
For the moment, McKenzie seems content to remain living and working in Cape Breton, producing film that is as intensely regional as it is universal. “It feels hard,” she said last year, “to imagine making a film somewhere else. My future is linked to here.”
Given the tremendous strengths and many surprises of Queens of the Qing Dynasty, Canadian cinephiles should all be so lucky to live long enough to experience Ashley McKenzie’s future.