Starlet (Sarah Walker) – or Star for short – is a psych ward frequent flyer, it seems. When we first meet her forcing activated charcoal down her throat at the start of Ashley McKenzie’s sophomore feature Queens of the Qing Dynasty, we soon learn this is not Star’s first time in this hospital after attempting to kill herself. The staff are familiar with her, and she with them; there is something decidedly business-as-usual to it all as Star goes through the bureaucratic motions. She knows her doctors, knows her social worker, but now – on the cusp of adulthood, where she shifts legally from being a minor to an adult – there are new hurdles to jump.
Luckily for Star, she doesn’t have to go it alone, and it is here with her newfound friendship with a hospital volunteer An (Ziyin Zheng) that the film’s heart is located. Just as Star works through her challenges, positioned against the backdrop of a deeply traumatic past that is mentioned only in passing, An too is in a time of transition; a genderfluid Chinese visitor to Canada hoping to immigrate permanently, the two form a surprising yet powerful bond across the film’s runtime.
The follow-up to 2016’s Werewolf, in Queens of the Qing Dynasty McKenzie once again drills deep into the interpersonal relationships of people trying to find their place in the world, and they do so with extraordinary insight and sensitivity. McKenzie emphatically rejects any and all stereotypes, which is refreshing not only when it comes to the representation of An as a queer Asian, but also with Star – the figure of the suicidal teen is one frequently drenched with cliches, all of which McKenzie and Walker reject. Star is never “depressed” as such, and there’s no real evidence of self-loathing, for example; she is, it seems, far beyond this. Rather, she is marked by a kind of novel detachment, caught up only in the immediacy of the moment, finding it impossible to think too much of the past or the future.
In a film that is driven primarily by intense dialogue between its two leads, both Walker and Zheng carry the weight of the movie with ease. Scott Moore’s low-key cinematography often brings us into extremely intimate contact with Star and An, which when combined with McKenzie’s thoughtful direction invites us into their world without ever pushing their cast into overwrought territory. An emotionally intelligent portrait of two lost souls who find each other, Queens of the Qing Dynasty is a charming work of subtle power.