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Queens of the Qing Dynasty Review

by Daniel Reynolds
4.0 out of 5.0 stars

For a film with such an expansive sense of empathy, Queens of the Qing Dynasty does not relent. As writer-director Ashley McKenzie’s follow-up to 2016’s acclaimed Werewolf, her latest film finds a new harrowing register to work in, while becoming also softer, more thoughtful, and at times downright playful. Yes, the film, like its two main characters, can contain multitudes.

Star (Sarah Walker) awakes in the hospital after a suicide attempt via poison. She’s out of it and it’s not entirely clear why—that she is mentally unwell is apparent enough though. To aid her recovery, Star is paired with An (Ziyin Zheng), a genderfluid volunteer who’s working toward gaining their Canadian citizenship. On a basic level, McKenzie’s film is about the bond formed between these two outsiders; but life is not that basic for either of them. Rather than fall into easy tropes, Queens of the Qing Dynasty instead embraces the mysteries of both Star and An’s minds and the strange yet empowering exchange between them. The film’s uplift, such as it is, comes not from discovering solutions to their problems so much as from their sharing of themselves together to feel less alone. McKenzie amps up a reflective sonic collage and applies a sharp eye toward the clinical situations Star and An are often surrounded (or trapped) by, creating an uneasy balance, a tone that pushes and pulls at the same time. That Walker and Zheng, both first-time actors, can stand out in this intense cinematic mix is also something of a special achievement.

What’s taken from Queens of the Qing Dynasty is not a resolution so much as a state of mind. The lives ahead for both Star and An will likely be complicated in different ways. It’s possible they will fall out of touch or have their existences cut short by awful events outside of their control. With McKenzie’s film, it’s possible to acknowledge any outcome. This is unsettling, but hopeful, in a way. We are all still alive too.

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