Coming March 3rd to the TIFF Lightbox Theatre in Toronto is Unama’ki – Cape Breton Island-based Ashley McKenzie’s sophomore feature Queens of the Qing Dynasty. Based on a Cape Breton local McKenzie met during the casting process of their first film Werewolf, Queens of the Qing Dynasty is a queer friendship romance about a neurodivergent girl verging on adulthood and an international student approaching gender fluidity. It’s an absurdist two-hour journey steeped in poetry and curiously sci-fi-inspired music with colourful and atmospheric lighting and cinematography.
Filmed mainly in a Cape Breton hospital, actor Sarah Walker reflects on the fear she had to leave at the door. “I definitely think that [filming in the hospital] was beneficial for the character of Star because, like me, Sarah, I am not someone who likes the hospital, but Star finds herself there quite often. I think it’s almost a safe space for her. So, it was helpful because it took me out of myself and helped me have that little switch [into character].”
Star (Sarah Walker) is a neurodivergent teen with severe mental illness and emotional/physical trauma from growing up in the Canadian foster/welfare system. Queens of the Qing Dynasty starts with her being checked into the psych ward after attempting to kill herself. An (Ziyin Zheng) is an international student volunteering at the hospital and assigned as Star’s companion, told to comfort with conversation and aid in Star’s recovery.
The exploration of the Qing Dynasty acts as a jumping board for Star and An’s friendship, as it opens a dialogue about gender, strength and identity that bridges the characters’ internal struggles. As we follow these two through their different struggles and character arcs, their relationship develops, and we see how they move forward together and apart. Throughout this journey is the integrated mythical history of the Qing Dynasty that An is particularly interested in. Having helped with Ashley McKenzie’s screenplay, Ziyin (Adrian) Zheng is credited as a script consultant for their contribution to An as a character; the casting of An was therefore obvious when it came to Ziyin Zheng because they are so prevalent in An’s motivations and nuance.
“Because [Ashley McKenzie] was writing this script, which includes a Chinese international student character, she wanted to make the character more authentic. That is why she contacted me and wanted me to put my insight into it. I would tell her, ‘Okay, a Chinese student might not say this.’ Or I would tell her that certain scriptwriting is slightly stereotypical. Then I started co-writing the script, so I became a script consultant. […] [I am] definitely a similar person; [a] more exaggerated person than who I truly am. Yeah, I put a lot into it. When I see the script, it’s almost like it’s just our conversation detailed. I was really impressed by her memory; it [felt] natural to walk into that. But also, I do find a major difference, too. Compared to the character, I am less – how to say – aggressive, even more mystical. So, that is the difference.” – Ziyin (Adrian) Zheng
This is so much to Queens of the Qing Dynasty about Cape Breton and Canadian culture, multiculturalism, and political issues buried in the stories of these two characters. An’s character explores the new freedoms of being in Canada compared to China while also wasting away in the limitations of a small community as a queer folk with such creative energy. And Star is a classic example of a girl who falls through the cracks of the Canadian institution; she’s not divergent enough to garner institutional care, yet not typical enough to be left be; she’s straddling a line – were she given the resources she needed, she could be a productive member of society, yet there isn’t quite a place for her in the current system. In Queens of the Qing Dynasty, Star exhibits the agency to control her own life, make a space for herself in the world, and touch the lives of everyone she meets, as actress Sarah Walker interprets. Although it’s left to the audience’s interpretation due to the open end to the film, we’re left with many possibilities for these characters by the end.
Queens of the Qing Dynasty is undoubtedly worth the watch. The film will have its theatrical release across Canada beginning on March 3, screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, followed by March 10 in Ottawa and Winnipeg and March 17 in Vancouver, with more cities to be announced soon.