Tales from the Unama’ki Hospital: Ashley McKenzie on Queens of the Qing Dynasty 

By Adam Nayman

Intense duets are at the centre of Ashley McKenzie’s cinema. Her 2016 debut Werewolf portrayed a pair of emotionally conjoined drug users, juxtaposing devotion and addiction as two sides of the same coin. In her follow-up, Queens of the King Dynasty,which recently premiered in Berlin’s Encounters competition,a young psychiatric patient and her volunteer caregiver form a codependent relationship with shifting emotional and power dynamics. Both outsiders of a kind, the two characters each recognize some aspect of themselves in the body and soul of the other. 

Checked into a Cape Breton emergency ward after what is evidently the latest in a series of suicide attempts, 18-year-old Star (Sarah Walker) is, as Lawrence Garcia writes in Mubi’s Notebook,like a glitch in the system. No matter how educated and well-intentioned her caregivers, she stymies their attempts at communication—and salvation—not out of defiance, but as a function of her own neurodivergent personality. Processing her environment through dilated pupils that suggest a perpetual form of lucid dreaming, Star could be an anime heroine or a somnambulist; the only voice that penetrates her trance state belongs to Chinese transplant An (Ziyin Zheng), who’s new to the hospital and trying to pad their case for immigration with community service. An speaks to Star in the soft tones of a longtime friend, even during their first late-shift exchange—a meet-cute in what eventually reveals itself as (without reducing down to) a kind of romantic comedy in which courtship is indivisible from confession, and time seems to warp and bend to the contours of mutual infatuation. 

During its first half, Queens of the Qing Dynasty captures the distended nature of hospital time, with its slow-motion 24-hour clock and hallucinatory, day-for-night torpor, at once urgent and soporific, intimate and impersonal. It’s in this underlit, liminal space that the two characters size one another up. In Star, An sees a fellow outsider whose visible difference as an immigrant in mostly white Nova Scotia is heightened by their flamboyant, non-binary affect and gestures—a performance that also feels like an extension of something authentic. For An, newly settled in a country potentially more conducive to the possibility of gender transition, Star’s deep and perilous vulnerability inspires not simple pity but a form of solidarity, which extends beyond the hospital walls in later sequences that fill in a wider community portrait without sacrificing subjectivity. 

McKenzie shot Queens of the Qing Dynasty before COVID some time after she’d returned home to Nova Scotia from an extended festival-circuit victory lap with Werewolf—back to a community that she says felt at once familiar and stagnant in the wake of her international itinerary. (On a Zoom call in early 2020, she joked that in her neck of the woods the loneliness of lockdown was pretty much indistinguishable from business as usual.) By imagining a chance encounter that deepens into a loving codependency, McKenzie was perhaps addressing—and exorcising—aspects of her own isolation, but the characters in her film are closely based on other real-life sources: Star’s biography and behaviour are modelled on a neurodivergent teenager who McKenzie met years ago while auditioning actors for Werewolf, while Zheng, who moved to Cape Breton several years ago, is by all accounts playing a thinly veiled version of themselves—a “sassy bitch,” as per the production notes. (Zheng is officially credited as a script consultant.) 

These characters feel unique to Canadian cinema, contemporary, micro-budget, or otherwise, and the actors inhabit them to the point where they don’t really seem to be acting at all. This is not to say that Queens of the Quing Dynasty has a remotely documentary aesthetic: if anything, it represents a break from the rigorously finessed naturalism of Werewolf,or perhaps an elaboration and expansion of that film’s sole, fleeting passage of magic realism, in which a character becomes briefly encircled by CGI swirls. Here, amidst the usual array of extreme close-ups and slightly asymmetrical establishing shots that make up McKenzie’s typical visual syntax, there’s all kinds of play with digital textures and the iconography of social media. Early on, we get a glimpse of Star’s sardonic, melancholy Instagram scroll (screen name: “ratsbackwards”); later, iPhone text messages float across the screen in ghostly isolation. There’s also a rapturous passage in a virtual-reality room that recalls the video-game escapism of Kazik Radwanski’s How Heavy This Hammer (2015), which used similar imagery to delimit the boundaries of its protagonist’s fantasy life. The slightly surrealist weave of images is heightened by the tour-de-force soundscaping of Andreas Mandritzki, who interlaces Autechre-ish electronica with musique concrète and stylized foley work. 

What McKenzie is chasing through these strategies is a profound sense of interiority—a means of getting inside her characters beyond the neorealist intimacy of her debut. She signals these intentions satirically via an early view of a capsule endoscopy camera being swallowed as part of an intake exam—a hyper-literal way to look inside a person in search of what ails them. It’s a visual gag that’s also an alienation effect, and the rigorous dislocation of the filmmaker’s approach—the wilfully off-tempo storytelling and editing rhythms, the alternately halting and run-on dialogue, and Star’s repetitive self-sabotage, understood implicitly as a frail state of grace—will inevitably throw some viewers, the same way that Werewolf’shardscrabble cinematography bewildered certain trade-paper critics. (When McKenzie deservedly won a $100,000 prize for Best Canadian Feature from the Toronto Film Critics Association, I thought of the Variety writer who carped that she should invest in a tripod next time.) But focus and concentration are also their own rewards, and, in the same way that Star’s unconventional syntax and vocabulary belie depths of humour and emotion, Queens of the Qing Dynasty finally seeks to express rather than obfuscate. By communicating a rare, cathartic, and humane commodity, McKenzie has given us a movie worth talking about.

Cinema Scope: I wanted to begin by asking you about the hospital in the movie, and the hospital space in general. In my experience, it’s always a weird mix of impersonal and intimate in hospitals, where you’re part of an intake process at first and have to just sit around and wait. And then when someone sees you, even if it’s not life or death, it’s just so weirdly private, this conversation with a qualified stranger. 

Ashley McKenzie: Yeah, my personal experiences in hospitals have felt like this same weird mix. So I was intrigued when an EMT friend of mine told me about a woman who calls 911 most weekends because she’s lonely and wants to get out of her house. I was fascinated by the idea of somebody making that a social outing. It characterized the hospital space in an entirely different light for me. Then I spent some time visiting a young friend in the hospital after a suicide attempt, and began to see the space as a refuge from home. The pediatric wing she was in was completely empty and shut off from the bustling hospital; she seemed to be the only patient. There was a sitter with her, offering company at all times, and a nurse would come in occasionally and warmly attend to her. There was no rush or sense of urgency: it was calm and quiet, and she got to choose what channel she wanted to watch on the TV. 

Scope: There’s a 24-hour clock in hospitals. Day bleeds into night, and time loses meaning. 

McKenzie: Time moves differently, for sure, and that was definitely a structuring idea of the first half of the film. Star lands in the ER on a Friday night and has to stay until Monday, when the shrink can assess her. The moody, nocturnal vibes of the hospital over this weekend allow a bubble to form between Star and An that feels singular and private, a bit like an alternate universe where time doesn’t exist—but one that can be ruptured, and difficult to uphold, in the outside world.

Scope: Was the production small enough that you could just shoot in an open, working hospital without disrupting anything?

McKenzie: Our team was small and we shot in open, working hospitals—four of them, to be exact—in the two months prior to COVID lockdown. We managed to not be disruptive, or at least we were a welcome disruption according to our liaisons at the hospital, who said that everyone was excited to have us around. I think coexisting with them, and carving out the necessary space, was made viable by the fact that many of these small-town hospitals are slowly being decommissioned. The hospitals in a town like New Waterford, where I grew up, will have their ER open one week but closed the next, so we were able to align our shooting schedule with those rotations. The health-care needs here are quite high, because it’s an aging population, so if a bed, operating room, or hospital wing is open on a given day or night, it will be in full-use.

Scope: Are the health workers in the film playing themselves? 

McKenzie: It’s a mix, actually: almost every scene combines cast actors with real hospital personnel. I’m not sure how easy it is to tell the difference between the two. The majority of nurses were real personnel, which was vital when it came to setting up equipment and handling it with expertise during a scene. We basically had on-set medical consultants at all times. The shrink would be an example of an exception: I cast my cousin, who is a jazz musician with no acting experience, but he stepped into the role with ease and we improvised much of that scene.

Scope: One immediate connection I thought of between Queens and Werewolf is the experience and dynamics of care. They’re both movies about characters who are looking for help within institutional frameworks and health-care systems. Star is very resistant to care, or she just isn’t able to let herself be looked after in a way, but An’s character is defined in part by protectiveness, empathy, and strategies for trying to help, and they end up doing so in ways slightly outside the scripts or expectations of the system. 

McKenzie: I think that’s exactly why the care works and is able to flow between Star and An, because it’s not scripted or systematic. Not everyone responds well to that mode of care. An goes shockingly off-script and would be fired if found out, but in doing so they find a way to communicate with Star that is meaningful. It takes experimentation and effort for them both to decode one another initially, but then they quickly form a language together and learn a lot from each other. 

Scope: It feels like Star and An are drawn to each other in a very specific way, like each has something the other responds to, or even maybe wants a little bit. Star sees An as an outsider, and their difference is quite visible and exotic and attractive—and maybe aspirational. And An, who wants to transition to being female, is compelled by Star as much as they feel responsible for her. There’s a lot of yearning, and a sense of characters who aren’t quite fulfilled or complete until they meet each other. 

McKenzie: It’s so much about yearning, but perhaps more a yearning to be seen, listened to, and connected with in affirming ways than a desire to be someone else. Both characters are coming from a place of deprivation. Star is stigmatized in her community and isolated to some degree because of that, yet thrives so deeply on human interaction. An leaves home and moves to Canada in order to find a space to more freely express their authentic self, so they’re eager to talk—about everything—in as explicit a way as possible: they want to talk about dick, trophy wives, and Céline Dion because they suddenly can. An is testing new boundaries and Star is naturally unfiltered, so I think something special happens in the intersection between the two, in their chemistry, that creates a reaction.

Scope: Star’s subjectivity is a big part of the movie’s visual and auditory language, and it’s always a fine line between trying to represent neurodivergence and descending into pure stylization. I kept thinking of the one moment in Werewolf where you violated naturalism and used visual effects, and wondered if Queens is meant partially as an expansion or elaboration of that scene—as a movie that’s happier to exist in a kind of fantasy space, or drift in and out between fantasy and reality. 

McKenzie: With my shorts and with Werewolf I was really inspired by my environment, its working-class history and textures. The logical representation of that was a social-realist film made in a verité style. That style fit my other movies well, and made a lot of practical sense too, but I did start to feel like it was limiting the way I thought about crafting characters, building scenes, and writing dialogue. Then Star and An started to emerge as complex, vibrant, and talkative creatures, and naturalism couldn’t contain them: their creative ways of conceptualizing and expressing themselves necessitated that I find new ways to engage. The entire movie is a sort of experiment in burrowing into their brains and vibing on their frequency.

Scope: It seemed like you were signalling that with the shot of the endoscopy, which is a very literal way to represent interiority. 

McKenzie: Totally, this shot is the most literal way to show insides. The scope is invasive and is a kind of probing that is less voluntary and intimate, more like the kind of contact that Star has grown used to in her interactions with the normative world. It’s obligatory. When I think about my past films, again, there was this push to distill things down to a single note—one gesture or visual detail—that is beautiful in its simplicity. I love such understatement, but also worry that it risks being flat or reductive. In Queens, the real interiority is via an expansion outward—a cumulative layering of confessions, wordplay, visual stimuli, associative music, and gestures that keeps unfolding. I think that’s how my brain has always worked, actually, and it was liberating to write a lot of dialogue, play around with layers, and try weaving them all together. 

Scope: I know that both characters in the movie are based on real people in your life, but I wonder, beyond that baseline theme of care and vulnerability, why you were drawn to some of the specifics here—to questions of gender identity, neurodivergence, or queerness in general. Is there something that shifted in you, or did these things drift toward you via your inspirations and collaborators? 

McKenzie: That’s a good question. I’m glad you asked it—I think. The line between my films and my life…it always goes back and forth, and it’s strange and a little freaky. I’ve just gotten used to it. I know now that if I write something in a script, it’s basically going to actually happen six months later…It’s definitely a bit of both, and it would be difficult to map out what the sequencing was exactly, because it’s pretty intertwined. There’s always one or two moments with each film that I make where the interaction between my life and something I’ve written starts to run in parallel in a strange, unanticipated way. In terms of the specifics you mention, queerness and neurodivergence have always been a big part of my family since I was a kid, but there were definite shifts in recent years that brought that into focus in this phase of life. 

Scope: Was it difficult to compartmentalize between the intimacy of your relationships around the movie and the ruthlessness it takes to get something small and cheap made? 

McKenzie: I want to say that these two separate realities ultimately worked in tandem with one another. This project is my most ambitious in scope to date, and it required a vast amount of my energy for long periods of time. One of the things that kept me going and feeling positive was my love for Star and An, and my affection for the people and relationships that inspired them as characters. They motivated me a lot, as collaborators, and were so on-board and enthused by it all that compartmentalizing wasn’t necessary. My contact with them reminded me every day why I was inspired in the first place.

Scope: How wide is the gap between Sarah Walker and Star? 

McKenzie: When Sarah Walker first walked in the audition room, the gap between her and Star seemed vast. I looked at her headshot and the activities on her CV and made some quick, superficial judgments about what her life must be like. Then Sarah ran the audition scene, and I was shocked at how much she channelled something of Star right out of the gate. I couldn’t understand it, but there was a baseline there that felt aligned, and I decided to cast her. Sarah spent time with my friend who inspired Star, learning how to smoke and absorbing her infectious manner of speech. Once Sarah had her hair cut and dyed and got into costume and we started to shoot, the gap closed entirely. It was almost inexplicable to me. More recently, Sarah has expressed to me she’s hidden a lot of herself in order to present as a neurotypical person most of her life, and that playing the character of Star opened a lot of that up for her. So now there’s a larger gap between her and the person who came into the audition room two years ago.

Scope: Can you talk about the soundscaping of the movie? It’s very layered and sophisticated.

McKenzie: The sonic language that developed, and how it was built out across the film, wasn’t a linear process. It began with an interest I had in a couple of synthesizers, like the Monomachine and Buchla, and artists who work with them, then grew into something quite vitally linked to the characterization of Star and An. I wanted to dissolve boundaries between music, sound design, and foley, and started working with a lot of temp tracks in the edit by Autechre, Cecile Believe, and Suzanne Ciani. Then I assessed what was missing, and what to add. I reached out to a Chinese electronic musician, Yu Su, to score some original pieces with more thematic tie-ins, then shortly before heading into the mix Cecile Believe also composed a few original cues to complete the soundscape.

Scope: It feels like a really long time ago that Werewolf won the TFCA prize, and I wonder if a lot of the rhetoric and hype around that moment—the idea of a group of emerging, young, sophisticated Canadian filmmakers from coast to coast, gaining acclaim and mainstream traction—is going to end up being a footnote to history; a casualty of COVID, in a way.

McKenzie: I’ve seen a continuation of that momentum from afar in recent years, but the electricity in the air was likely dampened a lot by COVID. I haven’t been around to really gauge the vibes. But I think the energy will return once filmmakers and critics get to gather again at festivals, to reconnect with each other, meet new people, and feed on that collective energy. Attending the Berlinale this year was an instant reminder, to me, of how vital and supportive it is to have that in-person exchange. 

Scope: The film you did make feels like it’s going to be a conversation piece as soon as more people see it… 

McKenzie: Yes, and that’s a bit scary, because I prefer to let my films speak for themselves. But it’s also what the movie is about, moving through discomfort and maintaining dialogue. A big impetus for me was to not shy away from that and to make a space in the cinema for a conversation to happen that requires pause, recalibrating, and unpacking, in hopefully interesting ways.