“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 closure point, as if the close friendship between the characters has run its course. But rather than a goodbye, it instead feels like the friendship is being put in a box, carefully placed in the back of a closet. The intensity of this moment for Star and An is over, but they are both forever changed simply by knowing each other. It’s like the parting of two lovers, connected by language instead of sex or even physical touch. Their relationship is personified perfectly on the poster, which displays two hands crossed at the wrist, occupying the same space without contact, close and distant at the same time.
With their first feature “Werewolf,” Canadian director Ashley McKenzie established themself as an empathetic storyteller with an ear for naturalistic dialogue. The film followed two young methadone addicts working to maintain both their relationship and their shared drug habit in Nova Scotia. Much of the film takes place in hospital settings, as the couple says anything they can to get their next fix through the Canadian healthcare system. “Queens of the Qing Dynasty” is their sophomore 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 come to mean a lot to each other. Star is a troubled young woman recovering from a suicide attempt and An is a volunteer tasked to look after her as she recovers. Star has done this before and it seems like most of the hospital staff know her. With a past that includes sexual assault, incest and a tragic pregnancy, Star has many reasons to not want to be part of the world anymore. She has no family or friends to look out for her and no ambitions for the future. And yet, she’s still so full of life. Star is inquisitive, asking questions to everyone around her, persisting even when they don’t answer. Revealing details about her life freely, Star is more open than most. When you don’t have anything or anyone, there’s really nothing to lose.
All the while, An listens and observes intently. Star’s frankness invites An to open up about themself, and they reveal their desire to transition and live life as a trophy wife. Star, ever the optimist, begins to imagine a future where she and her friend can live together. She’s asexual but perhaps not aromantic—the way she looks at An suggests an appreciation for their beauty and mind, in a way that feels beyond friendship at times. It’s less clear what An thinks of Star. An’s behavior seems mainly driven by a need for someone to be there while their life is in limbo. An is working on becoming a Canadian citizen while dealing with gender dysphoria. Star doesn’t have the tools to solve these problems, but she’s there. Sometimes being there is healing enough.
The first half of the film is scored 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 on screen. McKenzie puts us right into the hospital, both visually and sonically. When Star and An begin to bond, it feels cosmic — two souls meeting in a dream world. But once they’re out of their fantasyland and back in the real world, the spell “Queens of the Qing Dynasty” has us under is slowly lifted. Outside it’s snowy and desolate, cold reality stretching out in front of us.
Walker and Zheng are engaging as the dreamy, troubled friends. Zheng’s performance is especially striking, their gorgeous eyes revealing a wealth of emotion. There’s something lyrical and erotic about their movements, even within the sterile environment of the hospital. Walker, in contrast, fully embodies an emotional thirst for contact. Her eyes are wanting even as her body keeps her a safe distance from everyone around her. She plays Star as a girl afraid to live in her body, staying in her head and talking constantly to fill time and feel less alone. The tragedy of Star and An is that they both want more than what they can give each other. And yet, what they’re able to give, despite their circumstances, is no less meaningful. As with “Werewolf,” “Queens of the Qing Dynasty” is ultimately a story of restless hearts yearning for stability and direction. Hopeful and deeply emotional, McKenzie has crafted a film that feels like a fairytale for these isolating times. It reminds us how much we need each other in order to flourish and fully know ourselves.
“Queens of the Qing Dynasty” screened at the New York Film Festival on October 1. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.