Queens of the Qing Dynasty Review: Ashley McKenzie’s Hospital Film

NYFF: McKenzie’s film takes us into the healthcare system to tell the story of a healing, transformative friendship.

“Thank you for communicating and being like family. I love you for that,” Star (Sarah Walker) tells An (Ziyin Zheng) in the final moments of Queens of the Qing Dynasty. The moment feels like a closing point, as if the close friendship between the characters had run its course. But instead of saying goodbye, it feels like the friendship is being put in a box, carefully placed in the back of a closet. The intensity of that moment for Star and An has passed, but they’ve both changed forever just by knowing each other. It’s like saying goodbye to two lovers, connected by language rather than sex or even physical touch. Their relationship is perfectly embodied in the poster, which shows two hands crossed at the wrist, touching and occupying the same space, near and far at the same time.

Canadian director Ashley McKenzie has established herself as an empathetic storyteller with an ear for naturalistic dialogue with her feature debut Werewolf. The film followed two young methadone addicts as they work in Nova Scotia to maintain both their relationship and their shared drug addiction. Much of the film is set in hospitals as the couple say whatever they can to get their next fix through Canada’s healthcare system. Queens of the Qing Dynasty is her second feature, taking us back into the healthcare system to tell a very different story of a healing, transformative friendship.

Star and An are two unique strangers who mean a lot to each other. Star is a young woman recovering from a suicide attempt, and An is a volunteer assigned to take care of her while she recovers. Star has done this before and it seems like most hospital staff know her. With a past that includes sexual assault, incest and a tragic pregnancy, Star has many reasons for not wanting to be a part of the world anymore. She has no family or friends to take care of her and no ambitions for the future. And yet it is still so full of life. Star is inquisitive, asking everyone around her questions and persisting even when they don’t answer. Star is open about details about her life and is more outspoken than most. When you have nothing or nobody, you really have nothing to lose.

Meanwhile, An listens and observes intently. Star’s openness invites An to open up about herself, and they reveal her desire for transition and life as a trophy wife. Star, always optimistic, begins to envision a future where she and her friend can live together. She’s asexual, but maybe not aromantic – the way she looks at An suggests an appreciation for her beauty and spirit in a way that sometimes feels beyond friendship. It’s less clear what An thinks of Star. An’s behavior seems to be driven primarily by the need for someone to be there while their life hangs in the balance. An works to become a Canadian citizen while grappling with gender dysphoria. Star doesn’t have the tools to solve these problems, but she’s there. Sometimes just being there is healing enough.

The first half of the film is set to the sound of medical equipment beeping in the background of Star’s conversations with An and the rest of the hospital staff. The visual style is kaleidoscopic, with colors swirling around the screen. Visually and sonically, McKenzie puts us right in the hospital. When Star and An begin to connect, it feels cosmic – two souls meeting in a dream world. But once they are out of their fantasy land and back in the real world, the spell that “Queens of the Qing Dynasty” has on us is slowly being lifted. Outside it is snowy and desolate, cold reality spreads out in front of us.

Walker and Zheng play the dreamy, worried friends. Zheng’s performance is particularly impressive, her beautiful eyes revealing a wealth of emotions. There is something lyrical and erotic about her movements, even in the sterile environment of the hospital. Walker, on the other hand, fully embodies an emotional longing for contact. Her eyes are drooping even as her body keeps her at a safe distance from everyone around her. She plays Star as a girl who is afraid to live in her body, stay in her head and talk constantly to fill time and feel less alone. Star and An’s tragedy is that they both want more than they can give each other. And yet what they are able to give, despite their circumstances, is no less significant. Like Werewolf, Queens of the Qing Dynasty is ultimately a tale of restless hearts longing for stability and direction. Hopeful and deeply emotional, McKenzie has created a film that feels like a fairy tale for these isolating times. It reminds us how much we need each other to thrive and to know ourselves fully.

Grade B

Queens of the Qing Dynasty was screened at the New York Film Festival on October 1st. US sales are currently being pursued.

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https://www.indiewire.com/2022/10/queens-of-the-qing-dynasty-review-a-hospital-friendship-unfolds-in-ashley-mckenzies-sophomore-outing-1234772936/ Queens of the Qing Dynasty Review: Ashley McKenzie’s Hospital Film

Lindsay Lowe

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