‘Queens of the Qing Dynasty’ Review: Secret Soul Mates

When a young woman hospitalized after a suicide attempt forms a bond with an international student, they create a different kind of relationship.

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By Beatrice Loayza

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The wonderfully bizarre Canadian drama “Queens of the Qing Dynasty” understands queerness the way that bell hooks did: as a “self that is at odds with everything around it.” Directed by Ashley McKenzie like a dream — or a bout of dissociation — the film is a love story, absent sex or romance, about a teenage psychiatric patient in Nova Scotia, Star (Sarah Walker), and a Shanghainese exchange student volunteering at the hospital, An (Ziyin Zheng). The pair make an odd couple, and yet their bond is intuitive, electric.

The story kicks off in the aftermath of Star’s suicide attempt, the film’s tone at once bleakly clinical and deadpan absurd. Star, a neurodivergent foster kid with a sardonic sense of humor, clearly doesn’t register the gravity of her actions. Eyes glazed, she seems out of touch with her own body, and she’s not one for rules, like when she’s kicked out of an apartment for opening it to partiers. Eventually, she is institutionalized.

Walker, captivatingly raw, makes Star both charming and frustrating in her aloofness. The cinematographer Scott Moore shoots in close-ups that blur at the edges, while the eerie sound design by Andreas Mendritzki gives the frosty Cape Breton location the feel of life on Mars, approximating Star’s dazed point of view.

An, a poised international student with bladelike long nails, dreams of transitioning, and — through a kind of buddy system — connects with Star, regaling her with stories of ancient Chinese courtesans, scheming, glamorous dames who never have to work. The two communicate by text: An sends singing videos with their face prettified by a filter; Star, a stream-of-consciousness barrage of messages and voice mail messages that usually go unacknowledged. She doesn’t seem to mind and An isn’t driven away by them, either. They part and reunite and part again.

Estranged from their communities, the two embody a different kind of relationship, and McKenzie doesn’t rely on the usual uplifting messaging and strained empowerment arc to humanize An and Star. In one beautifully uncanny scene, the duo stop by a virtual reality gaming studio and, equipped with headsets, plug into the fantasy, playing as flying sorcerers as they shoot the breeze. Their friendship remains mysterious, yet the film, as if by witchcraft, makes their connection feel palpable and true.

Queens of the Qing Dynasty
Not rated. In English, Mandarin and Russian, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hour 2 minutes. In theaters.

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