“In ancient China, concubines have these long nails,” An (Ziyin Zheng) tells Star (Sarah Walker) in Queens of the Qing Dynasty. “They’re extended. You know how they maintain their nails? They have no physical labours. That’s why queens of the Qing Dynasty fascinate me. They’re so good at playing mental games—real nasty concubines who outwit men and destroy their egos and protect themselves and their heirs. They extend their empires while keeping their nails long.”
“Hidden powers,” replies Star.
“I want to be like them. I want to be a trophy wife,” says An.
“Huh, I like that,” adds Star.
This exchange is one of several offbeat convos that make Queens of the Qing Dynasty a self-described “queer friendship romance.” It truly doesn’t fit into any box as writer/director Ashley McKenzie (Werewolf) brilliantly defies labels, genres, and expectations. More than once, Star cautiously asks An, her guardian at the hospital, “We flirtin’?” They don’t often reply to Star directly, but An rather segues into rambling stories about queens, concubines, and all things fabulous. They’re not flirtin’, per se, but there’s great chemistry between these two misfits.
The film mostly takes place in a drab Nova Scotia hospital, which extends McKenzie’s interest in the mundane, if innately empathetic settings of care wards after Werewolf and shorts like Rhonda’s Party. Star is under watch after a suicide attempt precipitated by grievous abuse from her brother. The circumstances encourage audiences to follow Star’s pace. The neurodiverse teen is slightly bewildered by her surroundings, especially once she’s introduced to An, who spices up the atmosphere with their stylish threads, concubine-ish nails, and uber-theatrical mode of expression. This is an immersive feat of slow cinema that really lets a viewer get inside Star’s head.
It helps, too, that McKenzie knows a great face when she sees one. Much of Queens of the Qing Dynasty unfolds in playful shot/reverse shot exchanges between Star and An. McKenzie shoots their faces nice and tight. With careful glances and expressive eyes, the film lets these two non-professional actors hit remarkable dramatic heights.
On one hand, Walker is a marvel of wide-eyed wonder. Star is a blank canvas of awe and weirdness. The film latches onto the cadence of her thought-process, and responds to her kinship with the exotic new friend in her midst. It’s a quietly interior performance, which is especially novel when McKenzie literally probes Walker’s insides in what is surely a Canadian film first. Zheng, meanwhile, is a natural performer. They flirtatiously flick their wrists and twirl their fingers, incorporating the hypersexualized aura of bad bitch concubines.
The measured cadence of Queens admittedly is of the love-it-or-leave it variety, but well-caffeinated cinephiles should embrace the strange. McKenzie’s sophomore feature confidently marks herself an assured voice. Mixing stark realism while seemingly taking audiences to another world, McKenzie creates a unique world for these characters to discover themselves anew. Films rarely afford characters such fluidity.
Embrace the Strange
While McKenzie’s always had a great hand for characters and environments, she’s operating on another cinematic level here. Queens of the Qing Dynasty furthers its immersive exploration of Star’s psychology through an innovative soundtrack that’s unlike anything audiences have heard before. The film rejects conventional dramatic cues. Instead, it offers an off-kilter soundscape that evokes a sense of curiosity. Beeps and boops accentuates the sparks of chemistry between Star and An. Meanwhile, the bursts of noise evoke synapses firing in Star’s brain as she stares inquisitively at the world before her. The futuristic soundscape complements the film’s truly progressive, collaborative relationship with actors. But it also explores neurodiversity in a way that films haven’t before. Musically and visually, Queens affords a sense of being in Star’s headspace. We get how quickly things excite her, but also learn to take our time swimming in her thought processes.
Similarly, for An, Queens provides a space for true self-expression. Where the intimate Academy ratio of McKenzie’s frame hugs Star’s dilated pupils filled with awe, the tight fit on Zheng is seductively empowering. The film creates a unique space for them to be authentically their own, whether by rocking out to Céline Dion, carving up “white people vegetables” like zucchini, or showing Cape Breton a thing or two about fashion.
Queens probes inner desires in an exploratory fashion, and eventually leaves the hospital, taking the pals on a road movie of sorts as they find their groove in a world that needs to learn to match the beat of their step. When they finally come full circle, it’s not in a drab beige hospital, but a vibrant Chinese restaurant bathed in celebratory red. Framed close together, it feels as if there’s nobody in the world but them.
“Huh, I like that,” Star might say.