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‘Queens Of The Qing Dynasty’ Review: An Isolated Friendship Blossoms To The Tune Of Electropop

A moving story about two people coping with sexual nonconformity, mental illness and everyday imaginary powers… 

Canadian writer and director Ashley McKenzie scored a big win with her 2016 directorial debut Werewolf, a drug-fueled drama about two outcasts looking to escape their small-town existence. Her sophomore effort, Queens of the Qing Dynasty, touches on similar themes of codependence and suffering while searching for something more. The film had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last September and will open at TIFF Bell Lightbox on March 3 before heading to other theaters across Canada.

Queens of the Qing Dynasty brings audiences into the world of awkward asexual teenager Star, played by newcomer Sarah Walker. Wooden and unstable, Star is hospitalized after she tries to commit suicide by poisoning herself. Aided by a team of doctors and nurses, Star begins a journey of recovery and self-discovery. It isn’t until she meets the hospital’s volunteer, An (Ziyin Zheng), that she genuinely feels whole.

Star and An bond on a number of things while the former is hospitalized and being cared for. The two appreciate what others view as offensive, often remarking that they enjoy evil things and describe themselves as “diabolical friends.” Star thinks of herself as a misunderstood orphaned loner trying to get by with what little she’s been given in life. An is an illegal immigrant to Canada, consumed by being genderqueer and wanting to stay in the country as long as possible. It is an unlikely friendship that borders on inappropriate, except that Star becomes a bit clingy over time. As the audience, we witness the rough road these two main characters traverse during their time together, with An illustrating patience for Star’s troubles.  

Queens of the Qing Dynasty is a subdued movie filled with gravitas for the moment it lands itself. An acts as a gentle guiding light for Star, while the suicidal teen must face the consequences of her actions. They discover a lot about one another in the process of acting upon their companionship. At the same time, Star is unafraid to demonstrate a juxtaposition of confusion and determination at any given moment. Hospital sounds give depth to scenes without much dialogue, and McKenzie’s use of kaleidoscopic colors throughout the film brings meaning to a slow burn of a plot.

It isn’t until Star is released into the real world and we see An’s existence outside the hospital setting that reality comes into complete focus. The two leads try their best to live “normal” lives, but the snowy isolation of the Canadian winter is often too much to handle. While not romantic in any sense, the dependence on one another beyond a controlled setting makes them flourish in times of need. 

By the end of Queens of the Qing Dynasty, we are left with a transformative relationship that unravels to a haunting electropop score. In an age of social media attempting to dictate one’s existence in a world full of hate and destruction, An and Star’s budding friendship stands as an example of stability in an increasingly unstable world. With two main characters aimless in their pursuits, watching a story play out where both An and Star try to figure out their next steps, even to the last moment, is refreshing.

Ashley McKenzie demonstrates how powerful it can be to zero in on a friendship built on powerless ideals. This world doesn’t value what each character brings to the table, but as An and Star spend time together, their limitations become more and more expansive. It is a toned-down approach to loneliness not often seen in modern movies, tackling a tricky subject that begs to be explored.

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