Canadian director Ashley McKenzie’s two features pivot around people caught up in traps. She’s a regional filmmaker, making work based in the communities of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton island, which is home to 132,000 people. Her 2016 debut, Werewolf, followed a couple of opioid addicts struggling to live on methadone maintenance. Her long-awaited follow-up Queens of the Qing Dynasty, opening this Friday at NYC’s Metrograph, begins with a suicide attempt by an 18-year-old girl, Star (Sarah Walker). Although she’s just begun life as an adult, she will likely require a lifetime of institutionalization, as the state has determined that it’s too dangerous for her to live on her own. She befriends hospital volunteer An (Ziyin Zheng), a genderqueer college student from Shanghai.
Most of Queens of the Qing Dynasty remains confined to the uninviting spaces of the hospital, but the final half-hour shows the possibilities of An and Star’s lives in a severely reduced version of the outside world: a trip to a VR arcade and Chinese restaurant during a very snowy winter. The possibilities of their lives are constricted by Star’s mental health problems and the fact that An may have to return to China when they graduate. Instead of forcing them into a couple, Queens of the Qing Dynasty looks at emotional intimacy outside romance, since Star is asexual.
The Film Stage: During the 6-year period between the release of Werewolf and Queens of the Qing Dynasty, were you also pursuing other projects?
Ashley McKenzie: After Werewolf I started to develop a project that was a portrait series. I wasn’t sure what form it would take, but I had multiple stories in mind and wanted to make them coexist. I didn’t know if it would be some kind of series or a feature film with several stories adjacent. One of the stories focused on Star from Queens. As I was developing two or three of those, her story kept growing and became its own thing: I was sort of working on something different but it became the seed for Queens of the Qing Dynasty. Once the character of An came into it, the script started growing and became twice the length of Werewolf. I knew this was its own thing and stopped working on the other stories.
Werewolf was made for a very small budget, but I believe all the money came from Canadian arts grants. How did you find the process of making the leap to a second feature?
In some ways it didn’t change that much. The big feeling I can recall in moving from Werewolf to Queens was keeping myself from getting distracted from making the film I wanted to make. By distraction I mean: getting concerned about my films making their way into the world and having wider reach. That brought new people into my life. A handful of fundraisers were interested in being involved in my second film. I was wary of getting taken off-course by propositions from other places or people, because I didn’t want to put my fate too much in the hands of the commercial industry. I tried to be honest about the fact that I want to stay in my community and make work here. So maybe it doesn’t make much sense for me to go a route where I have agents and join a union, because I’m choosing to live my day-to-day life far away from all these things. There was a bit of noise and excitement happening around Werewolf, but I knew I was going to make my second film without any radical changes and stayed focused.
Do you see Queens of the Qing Dynasty as a subversion of the idea of the couple and a typical love story? Even as a queer love story I can see a situation where Star and An would fall in love, but this presents one where that wouldn’t work and they don’t want that.
It’s definitely a subversion, even in the context of queer stories. They can be very focused on sex. The asexual undertone of the film subverts a lot of queer content. It’s easier to tell the story of a couple who are similar to a heteronormative one with a few changes. A story that refuses to follow that narrative trajectory and refuses to have a relationship hit certain milestones is a subversive thing. But it’s also a very real thing and something I’d like to see represented more. I see relationships like that in the real world, but not so much in media.
Are Walker and Zheng professional actors?
For both, this is their film debut. Since she was a kid Sarah Walker has been studying dance. She just got her college degree in voice; she’s a classically trained soprano. She had that skill set but she’d never followed it into acting for film before. Zheng also had some experience in theater. They passionately love music and singing. They had less professional experience, but they’re a really creative person. Both when they lived in Shanghai and Canada they had a little bit of stage experience. They had transferrable skills, but it was definitely a new experience.
The film is defined by the way most of it takes place in hospitals, with their particular light and color. In one scene, almost everything is white and Star practically fades into the wall. How much of that was a product of the hospital locations where you shot it and how much was produced by lighting and cinematography?
Because my creative team and I were a small unit, part of our artistic process was focusing on scouting. We don’t necessarily have the budget to create everything we’d want to. I put more effort into finding spaces where the palette works in a certain room. To find the locations that could play into the mise-en-scène we wanted, we shot in four hospitals. There was a lot of creation via that selection. The costume designer and the art designer were trying to enhance that. Through the selection of locations, certain color motifs emerge. When we did have to source a costume or prop, we thought, “Do we use the white fork or the yellow one? Well, yellow’s become a color in the film, so let’s go with that.”
There’s a sort of layering on top of this space to bring out the palette. The art department didn’t repaint anything but sometimes we took things away from a space. In one place the ceiling tiles were covered with drawings, so we pulled tiles from another room. In terms of lighting, Scott Moore, the cinematographer, wanted to use as many practical lights as we could and have them in the shot. We didn’t have a huge lighting kit but he was able to swap in different lights to keep consistent color temperature. We shaped what was already there to work. At times Scott mounted a light above the actors which gives a more dimensional, surreal look that’s slightly different from standard hospital lighting. There was a push towards slanting reality in a hyperreal vibe.
The exteriors look somewhat similar. There’s the same dominance of white as a color.
To me the whole world of the film feels like it could be in a vacuum. When my sound designer watched the first cut he said, “I feel like this hospital could exist on a spaceship somewhere.” Everything’s so decontextualized and the winter setting does wash out a lot of context. It’s quite desolate. I like how that creates the sense of another world. Sometimes living on an island can make you feel like you’re living on another planet. The nighttime scenes of the hospital environment have that liminal feel. The exteriors are more sober and grounded but still carry that vibe of being in a vacuum.
The way Star talks is very rhythmic. How much of that was present in the script and how much developed on the set?
A lot of that was informed by a friend who does have that particular cadence. Once you hear it, you just can’t get it out of your head. I loved running with that voice in my mind. It’s very much in the script, but I was shocked when Sarah Walker stepped into the role, how much she could dial it into the voice I heard in my head. Even on the script there’s a lot of room to take it into a different register. Huge credit to her and her mastery of her skills and the instrumentation of her body and voice! It’s really clear that she has that kind of control and precision as an actor.
Is the VR game Star and An play real, or was it animation created for the film?
It was created for the film by an animator, Thiago Carneiro. He’s at the forefront of Unreal Engine work in Canada. That world was new to me ’til I got into figuring out how to bring that world to life. He was able to create these environments and characters in Unreal Engine with high production value in a reasonable timeline. He was just one person working on it.
Despite its isolation, Cape Breton is portrayed as a somewhat cosmopolitan place, where someone like An might want to immigrate. There’s a scene where they talk about the differences between Canadians, Indians, and Chinese people. Werewolf felt a lot more confined. You can see it as a naturalist film about the opioid epidemic, whereas Queens has a strange mix of isolation and openness to the world.
I agree. Two things are happening there. One: in the time since Werewolf was made Cape Breton has changed. With Werewolf I tried to give people backstory to the place. I told people Cape Breton had the highest rates of poverty and youth-migration in Canada. Those trends and that legacy were the story we told about ourselves. Over the last eight years, newcomers started to come here, specifically young people being recruited by the university. There’s much more diversity. Industry and the economy have been stimulated by that. The change in the landscape happened between the making of these two films. Just character-wise, when I think of the couple in Werewolf, they’re so stuck in a rabbit hole and focused on survival that they’ve turned inside. They’re in so much pain they can’t open up to the world. There’s no reciprocal energy happening. They’re on a short leash, stuck in an emotional nadir.
When I started to write Queens I felt like Star gets her energy from looking at people. When she meets An, they’re the perfect person to connect to because the more she gives, the more they give. That openness felt like the opposite of Werewolf. Star can look longer than the typical person. In social interactions, her amazing stare disarms people and opens things up. It’s a portal that allows people the space to go beyond a typical, casual conservation. An meets her there, so the personal dynamics are set free.
A lot of films made in the last few years seem like inadvertent allegories about living through the pandemic. Queens was shot in 2019 but edited during the pandemic. Were any of the sense of isolation and emphasis on medical spaces a conscious reflection on that period?
In the edit I wasn’t trying to bend the film in light of COVID, but there was obviously some synchronicity. It was strange to think about how, when we were shooting the film, the art department took hand sanitizers off the wall because they were cluttering the shots and contained brand names. A month later the whole world tried to find hand sanitizer. When Star’s coughing everywhere in the cafeteria, it had an association after the fact. But I wasn’t pushing the footage towards any topical comment.
In the final half-hour, one of the big events is going to a restaurant. If COVID had never happened, that would play much differently.
That’s interesting. So much of the basic plot points came out of experiences with a friend of mine. We did go through this process where she was in the hospital. Our goal was to get her out on a day pass so she could do something. Ultimately, when you think about the film, that’s the narrative climax. I remember one time talking to her, she’d say, “I’ve never eaten at a restaurant.” The life she’d lived thus far was much different from the life I lived. In some ways, what those things mean to her are akin to what those experiences might mean to someone coming out of COVID. I hadn’t really made that connection.
Queens of the Qing Dynasty opens on May 5 at Metrograph and will expand.