Ashley McKenzie’s debut feature, Werewolf, already suggested a talent to watch in its refracted take on the addiction/relationship drama. While its dramatic sense felt stuck in rote beats, the formal sense was considerably more invigorating, with an extensive use of handheld to isolate body parts and constantly suggest a sense of the outside world’s pressure on two lovers. With her second feature, Queens of the Qing Dynasty, McKenzie has both developed and totally altered her aesthetic to form something considerably more focused and transfixing. Running 40 minutes longer than its predecessor, Queens of the Qing Dynasty operates upon a slightly more complex plot. Another two-hander, it principally follows Star (Sarah Walker), a young woman on the cusp of 19 with mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder and ADHD. On one of her semi-common attempted-suicide hospitalizations, she comes into contact with a queer Chinese immigrant caretaker (Zheng Ziyin) — credited as An, though at one point in their texts Star refers to them as Anne, and in general their conception of their gender remains compellingly ambiguous.
Apart from a clear bisection, with the first half taking place almost exclusively inside the hospital and the second floating in between various temporary residences for Star, including a mental hospital, Queens of the Qing Dynasty operates within a slippery, amorphous structure, continually building a captivating portrait of these two outsiders. An specifically likens their status as a queer immigrant — and as perhaps a “woman in a man’s body” — to Star’s fraught existence, recently orphaned and unable to live on her own. In this context, the eponymous queens are presented by McKenzie in a knowingly Orientalist fashion, as an unreachable ideal for An, who longs to be one of the imperial concubines who didn’t have to do any work but could wield immense power with their feminine wiles. This desire cuts both ways; An’s long and perfectly polished fingernails and consciously exotic presentation in certain moments dovetails with Star’s recurring fantasies of herself in ancient dress with gold talons. It’s fair to say that Queens of the Qing Dynasty (made by a White filmmaker) exists both within and outside of the Chinese-Canadian culture it glancingly tries to depict; Star ultimately remains the viewpoint character, but several scenes conducted in Mandarin with An and their female friends retain a deliciously catty and genuine feeling, altering the balance and lending further nuance to an already shape-shifting film.
Aside from the aforementioned fantasies and other aesthetic breaks — like an exquisite VR reverie, recurring use of crude animation, an apparently unsimulated endoscope scene, and a moment of strobing colors closely attuned to Star’s shifting attention — Queens of the Qing Dynasty trades in Werewolf’s handheld for extraordinarily controlled extreme close-ups, typically in shallow focus, which sharpen the viewer’s attention to minute details. Particular attention is paid to Walker’s eyes and her pupils, which seem to constantly expand and contract in a way that perfectly suits the somewhat unnerving yet largely intimate tone that McKenzie strikes. The ending, with its embrace of the ambiguous, odd relationship that the two develop over a brief period of time, includes a scene in a Chinese restaurant that eventually unfolds over a series of totally disjunctive jump cuts, placing both Star and An in the same place in front of an arch. This simultaneous melding and differentiation of bodies and personalities epitomizes Queens of the Qing Dynasty, a work drenched in eerie, morphing explorations.
Published as part of Berlin Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 1.