Queens of the Qing Dynasty

Ashley McKenzie finds beauty in liminal spaces in her film Queens of the Qing Dynasty

An interview with the Cape Breton filmmaker, one of the new voices in Canadian cinema challenging expectations and forging new aesthetic pathways.

For the past decade, there’s been a marked shift in the quality and diversity of English Canadian cinema. Among those new voices challenging expectations and forging new aesthetic pathways is Ashley McKenzie, whose 2016 film Werewolf was a surprise critical success. Based in Cape Breton, far from the expected filmmaking hubs, McKenzie leans into her outsider status. 

Departing from the visual style she established in her debut, McKenzie takes another leap of faith with her latest film, Queens of the Qing Dynasty. The film, set primarily in a hospital, is about a suicidal teen, Star (Sarah Walker), who develops an unlikely friendship with An (Ziyin Zheng), a student from Shanghai assigned to watch her. The film’s seemingly limited environment grows through their long, free-wheeling conversations. As a neurodivergent teen without a support structure (Star) and as a queer immigrant (An), their view of the world challenges the dominant socio-cultural narrative. Yet, through their evolving friendship, the film’s universe seems to expand, increasingly informed by their artistry and creativity. 

Ashley McKenzie spoke with Cult MTL over the phone about being based in Cape Breton, writing Queens of the Qing Dynasty and the importance of liminal spaces. 

Justine Smith: What’s it like being based in Cape Breton?

Ashley McKenzie: I don’t think many people understand what my life is like being based here in a remote rural community up in the mountains versus my peers in the city. No one asks about it too much. What’s it like? I don’t know any other thing, but I would say that it’s nice to have a contrast to the film world and the art world. I appreciate being able to walk away and be in nature. I can swim in a river, be in the woods, or do manual tasks like fall trees and split firewood. More and more, I appreciate being a filmmaker here, although it can feel challenging to balance the demands of both worlds. It also feels refreshing to have something very tangible and more nature-based in my life combined with this more heady, complicated art medium that requires a lot of infrastructure and financing and large amounts of people and logistics. 

Because I’m not surrounded by a film community in my immediate vicinity, it can feel a bit lonely at times, or maybe a lot of people in my community might not understand what I do. There’s almost this disconnect like I’m living two lives.

JS: Were you always attracted to making films? 

Ashley McKenzie: Yeah, it was probably in junior high — I’m not sure what the definitive moment was — but I know I started to use the term “filmmaker” (around that time). Pretty early in my teenage years, I just felt drawn to film. My formative teenage experience involved me departing from what my peers were doing in their recreational time and instead staying in my basement bedroom and just watching movies and schooling myself in film. That’s probably what solidified the idea to work in the industry. I turned to films to learn about the world. It was my language or the language that I understood. 

And I went to university and did film studies and English literature. It wasn’t until I came out of university that I started to try to figure out how to practise in the medium itself. It took a while to figure out how to do that in a place without a film community or industry. I ended up coming at it through photography and then moving more into film.

Sarah Walker in Queens of the Qing Dynasty

JS: I’m curious about the idea of liminal spaces within Queens of the Qing Dynasty. Much of the film takes place in spaces that are “in-between,” like hospitals or corridors. Do you reflect on the nature of these spaces in your work? 

Ashley McKenzie: It’s something that I theorize about a lot, just on a personal level. In terms of my creative process, I’m always writing down in my notes to find more liminal spaces in my day-to-day life because I feel like that is where all my creative ideas come from: they just rush in as soon as I’m in a liminal space, like in an airplane or I’m trapped in, like, a boardroom for a day. My body needs to be there, but I also can’t fill my space with distracting elements, like I can’t go on social media. Say I’m at a film festival, but I’m not in a headspace where I can take in every film. I just want to be in that space because I consider it liminal. I start to daydream and have a lot of creative ideas. I seek out any place like that because it feels like the only way to shake up the rigidity that settles in. Otherwise, life makes me start to feel like nothing will ever change, and I’m beholden to some routine. It’s only in liminal space that I feel that dissolves, and I am free to dream. 

When I think about that in relation to Queens, I think that both characters are in desperate need of that kind of space and are seeking ways to disrupt the status quo a bit and find a space where they can be who they want to be or like connect in new and deeper ways, just move outside the norms and the box of day to day life. 

Early on, thinking about the film, a friend of mine who was an EMT was telling me about a woman who would call 911 most weekends and go to the hospital purely out of loneliness. That notion stuck with me. When I think about Star and what she may need in her life, it makes sense that she would be trying to escape some aspect of her daily life. I think An is also looking for this type of deeper connection. Both characters were really coming from this place where they’re so ready to be in tune with one another as people. They each had that urgency there. 

When the story and the film’s techniques developed, it felt like they needed even more space. I started to find these pockets in the film where they could enter a bit of a portal. I use these extreme close-ups on their eyes and for long periods where they become slightly more disembodied. That was like expanding the hospital’s space into an even more abstract realm, making it even more liminal. That developed in response to what I felt the characters needed. They needed more space to dream and envision things and be free.

Ziyin Zheng in Queens of the Qing Dynasty

JS: The language feels so playful, exciting and exploratory in the film. How did the dialogue come about? Was it something that was all in the script, or is it something that’s emerging through working with the actors?

Ashley McKenzie: Early on, in my treatments of the film, I envisioned that language would be where a lot of the energy was in the piece and where a lot of playfulness and expression would emerge. I knew that it was becoming a dialogue-heavy piece. That really all played out on the page. But what helped that develop to be what it is on the page came from some real-life inspiration in my world, particularly one friendship of mine. This particular person, the way they spoke and saw the world fascinated me and was transformative for me when I was writing. How she saw everything around me felt different from how I’d been seeing it my whole life. Her attitude towards things had much more levity, playfulness and creativity. There’s a dominant narrative living in this era, and in meeting her, I was like, she’s not looking at things the same way. I’m so refreshed by how she saw things and how she used words to express herself. She felt like a poet, or like there was just an artistry to her self-expression that was so invigorating and fun to me. So I started to draw Star this way and could hear her voice while writing. Once I slipped into that character, it became so fun to think how she thinks and speaks the way I imagined her speaking. It was an easy voice to inhabit, have fun with and play with in the scriptwriting.

In the actual performance, both characters needed creative ways of expressing themselves. Music is important to them, and for Star, it is how she uses words in this playful, poetic way. In some ways, she’s almost writing her own screenplay and saying it in the way that she chooses her beats and the way she’ll use words like suspense; there’s this degree of a narrative agency or play or scripting. It’s important to me that both characters are creative people and that most people in their life might not view them as artists, but to me, they’re finding a medium to express themselves. It may not be recognized in the day-to-day world as a form of creativity, but I saw it that way.

JS: There are scenes in the film that feature characters scrolling through Instagram. How do you construct someone’s feed, and, more generally, what role do screens play in the film? 

Ashley McKenzie: In terms of your first question, there are different ways to go about it, but for us, my friend, who was partly one of the inspirations for Star’s character, had a lot of photos on Instagram that I really loved. I was just into her photographic eye, so we licensed several of her photos and then created an Instagram account for Star. We put her photos on the account and then filmed the phone screen as An looked at it.

It also involved having to get clearances through Instagram. You need to get proper clearances for any iOS stuff or Google or Instagram, any of these companies. It wasn’t an expensive process. It was more bureaucratic and time-consuming, letting them know that you want to show their platform in your film and how it’s being represented. 

The film is about communication and the importance of communication, and the difficulty of it at times. In Star and An’s world, gifting Star this phone and her having this communication device is a pretty life-changing act. It establishes a connection, something she really needs. She needs a form of connection with someone to survive. At a base level, communication and devices were central to the story and the characters. In terms of modes of representation, Star is a neurodiverse person, and I definitely could say that the way that she may experience the world around her and how a narrative might play out for her might be different than the dominant mode of representation in film. As a character, she can be in conversation with An or a nurse but also, at the same time, be in tune with other stimuli in her environment, whether it’s an animation on a television or a different sound. She weaves all of that into her perception and experience of the world. 

The more I tried to excavate Star and An’s characters, the more I took on this journey of utilizing all these different film techniques to understand their subjectivities better. The screen became a bigger part of the narrative. They’re being deployed (differently) than they would in my past work or more classical and dominant modes of storytelling. Films that reflect and destabilize that process and have things develop and unfold in different ways just felt right for the characters. ■

Queens of the Qing Dynasty (diected by. Ashley McKenzie)

Queens of the Qing Dynasty opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, April 7.

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