Filmmaker Ashley McKenzie (“Werewolf”) returns to the Berlinale this year with her second feature, “Queens of the Qing Dynasty,” premiering in Encounters on Tuesday. The writer-director stands out as an emerging Canadian talent, backed by the Toronto Film Critics Assn., who awarded her debut film the $100,000 Rogers Best Canadian Film Award in 2017.
An impressive new offering, “Queens” showcases McKenzie’s flair for loose, floating narratives and complex characters hoping to break free from their ennui. Protagonist Star (Sarah Walker) navigates life after a suicide attempt with the help of a special kind of babysitter, hospital volunteer An (Ziyin Zheng). An idiosyncratic friendship blooms and Star finally begins to feel a sense of kinship in her life, supported by a vibrantly queer individual who stands apart from the beige monotony of her experiences in the outside world.
Where did this story originate for you?
I auditioned two teenagers for my last feature, “Werewolf,” and I didn’t end up casting them but I developed a relationship with them. I quickly became a part of their life and they were going through things that are similar to what Star is going through — hospital stays, social worker meetings, navigating medications. Star is very much a close character study of one of these girls. This hospital environment can be a bit depressing and a lot of people become numb to it, but the way that she computed everything around her or interacted with people was always very creative and generative. I was just so energized by spending time with her and intrigued by her outlook on the world.
How did you develop the romantic tone that permeates the film?
I was really just so inspired by people and wanted to capture all their complexities so everything was generated from that. I felt like I was in a romantic bubble with Sarah and Ziyin in getting to know them and sharing our vulnerabilities. I see the film as trying to capture that feeling of being in a period of romance where all temporal and spatial elements seem to disappear.
How did you approach the film’s visual style? Certain shots really stand out as having a tactile and colorful quality against the backdrop of a more bland environment.
I would describe it as casting objects in the way that I cast characters. That came out of working with a small canvas which is informed by resources and a community that’s not a film community. I was turning to objects and details to express bigger things. It also became more attached to the subjectivity of Star and trying to get in her head and see what she is stimulated by.
The film’s soundscape works towards this too.
I think so much of the film was about wanting to capture the frequency on which the characters vibrate so I was always looking for ways to create textures in the sound. Star has a slapstick energy that really subverts all the normative processes that are trying to understand her, so with her I felt that foley sounds were really interesting — her stomach growling or the chair creaking. An has a more dramatic, diva energy and so this came through in the singing and this higher pitch.
What were the challenges for you of making a second feature?
I think if I want to have a career and keep making films, I have to find a way to do that sustainably. There’s a really good funding model in Canada right now for first features but the model outside of that caps funding at 50% of the project. When you’re transitioning to a second feature, it becomes this really challenging thing to complete your budget. But I think I’m also just trying to find my path after my first film and make projects come alive in the best way I can.