Queens of the Qing Dynasty Is an Ornate Meditation on Queerness and Disability

Movies Reviews Ashley McKenzie
Queens of the Qing Dynasty Is an Ornate Meditation on Queerness and Disability

The arc of golden fingernails bends towards queerness. In Ashley McKenzie’s Queens of the Qing Dynasty, the zhijiatao (golden nail covers often worn by Imperial women), are amulets of independence. They represent strength and luxury, a kept status far removed from manual labor, just as they did in the days of the Chinese court.

That is the first of many special lessons An (Ziyin Zheng) shares with their charge. Star (Sarah Walker) has been in and out of the hospital many times. An has been appointed to watch her after her latest suicide attempt. Though she’s 18, Star’s disability prevents her from working or living independently. She has parents, but they don’t seem to care or bother to understand. All she has are her cartoons and the sounds in her head.

But with An, things are different. They feel like the same people somehow. Both feel orphaned by society. Star’s disability and An’s queerness make them outcasts, people the system is not designed to support. This makes for an intense and intimate bond that seems free of inhibitions, for better and worse. The two will share their deepest secrets, their yearnings for a past and their hopes for a future.

Star is a difficult character. On the page, she could easily have been frozen, but Walker makes the dialogue interesting. Though McKenzie’s script seems unsure if Star can develop emotionally, Walker finds little moments to distinguish the Star at the end of the film from the one that wakes up in a hospital bed at the very beginning. Those moments puncture through an otherwise structural performance when Star is with An.

An is a sort of magic cricket, a submissive and kinky cricket who provides Star with a conscience. They tell her about the ways of the world and the wonders of the past through their queer sense of joy. Always flitting around Star’s periphery, An isn’t given a full context. Their life outside the hospital largely appears in vignettes, showing clues to his life beyond Star with her positive and negative influences. She may be an obsessive caller and texter, but Star helps An feel listened to. Star shows them a radical form of self-acceptance they didn’t know existed.

At its profoundly human heart, Queens of the Qing Dynasty wants to say something about the mutual aid and understanding between queerness and disability. There’s no bridge that Celine Dion’s “A New Day Has Come” can’t cross! Star and An both recognize that they each experience the world differently than so-called “normal” people. They are each abandoned by a system that dead-ends in homelessness—Star as a person needing care from a for-profit healthcare system, An as a queer international student at risk of deportation. The pair bond over this rootless, suspended state of being. 

A thematic sense of suspension is palpable throughout Queens of the Qing Dynasty, sometimes to the film’s detriment. Cecile Believe and Yu Su’s exceptional score is a soundscape. Ambient bleep-bloops take over, finding patterns and rhythms in Star’s head, putting us on Star’s surreal wavelength. But a script playing in subtlety, disaffection and emotional distance, coupled with this abstract score, can sometimes make the film feel like it isn’t going anywhere during its two hours. We are with these characters for a brief but intense time in their lives. The changes these characters go through are so internal, so minute, that they’re difficult to register. It sometimes feels like we’re stuck in a scene study, uncertain if we’re supposed to be building to something bigger.

We too rarely explore the contrasts between these two characters. For all their kindredness, An and Star have vastly different agencies. The system has trapped Star in a way that removes much of her free will. An always moves on their own. While it’s admirable to make parallels between queerness, disability, hospitalization and internment, there are moments when these juxtaposed themes warp from being similar to becoming flattened as the same.

The problem of whiteness distorts the intentions McKenzie has set out for Queens of the Qing Dynasty. An shares their love of Chinese culture with Star, regaling her with stories of courtly women from the Qing dynasty and all their titillating political-sexual machinations. Star learns the sacred Buddhist mudras hand gestures that An uses as sources of power. She takes it all in with fascination and appreciation, but in a total vacuum. When she wonders if she’ll become an “oppressor” like the “evil” courtesans plotting their empire, the unaddressed problems of the film ring out like a bell.

Much of Queens of the Qing Dynasty is tied up in a strange exoticism and unresolved ignorance. As a babe in the woods, Star often asks bluntly doe-eyed questions and confesses her fascination with “brown people.” Her racism becomes shorthand for her ignorance of the world, almost as if her prejudices are part and parcel of her disability. And it’s shrugged off by those around her, as her simply “not knowing better.” This does no one any favors. McKenzie’s script is so focused on what Star learns that it neglects to address the things Star has to unlearn as she becomes an adult, which is vital if we’re to have any worthwhile discussion between white folks and people of color. I’m not even sure the film believes she could unlearn them if she wanted to.

Queens of the Qing Dynasty is a unique film with a distinct voice, a brave example of queerness existing beyond sexuality at many different confluences. Though the follow-through is not as dynamic as I’d like, and the duration sometimes drags, the film takes big swings. A worthwhile sophomore outing for those interested in disability and queerness, it touches a constellation of identities as ornate as the golden finger covers worn by Imperial women.

Director: Ashley McKenzie
Writer: Ashley McKenzie
Starring: Sarah Walker, Ziyin Zheng
Release Date: May 5, 2023

B.L. Panther is a culture writer, scholar and Pisces from Northern Illinois. B! writes for outlets such as Honey Literary Journal and The Spool. A champion hermit, they enjoy reading, the indoors, afternoon naps and doing nothing at all.

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