Our Time Machine
2020, NR, 81 min. Directed by S. Leo Chiang, Yang Sun.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 11, 2020
Mix some steampunk iconography with some lyrical elisions and emotions. Throw in the soft edges of shadow puppetry and the hard edges of real life. Make the puppets life-sized and humans their stewards. Blend historic themes and imagery from the Beijing Opera with Western myths and parables. The result, if you’re lucky, might look something like the tableaux created in China by the singular artist Maleonn (the artistic moniker of Ma Liang).
Our Time Machine is a documentary that features Maleonn as its central figure: However the film is not exactly a documentary about the career of this multimedia artist. Instead, the film presents a story about Maleonn’s resolve to create a particular artwork. Yet, as directed by U.S.-based S. Leo Chiang and Taiwan-based Yang Sun, Our Time Machine almost falls into the genre of a “making of” film. The film belongs to them, however. Maleonn, their subject, is making a time machine for a new theatre piece that he hopes will restore his father’s failing memory.
Maleonn was born into an artistic family. His parents were heavily involved with the Beijing Opera before being sent to the countryside for “re-education” during the decade of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Afterward, his father Ma Ke resumes his career as an opera director, but while trying to make up for lost years, he has little time to spend with his family. Now retired, Maleonn becomes aware that his father’s memory is slipping, so he conceives a theatre project titled Papa’s Time Machine, for which he and his team fabricate all the physical elements, as well as a set-piece of a time machine built to industrial scale. It is Maleonn’s hope that the re-creation of moments he and his father shared in the past will reclaim his father’s lost memories and help the two to connect in the present.
The directors compose this film about the making of Papa’s Time Machine in fragments, almost as though each scene in their film was like a moving tableau lifted from Maleonn’s puppet play. Many scenes take place at the family’s dining table as Maleonn comes to visit regularly and encourage Ma Ke’s collaboration. There are also scenes in the artist’s studio where he concocts and assembles the puppets and stage accoutrements. Visits to doctors, donor visits to the studio, radio interviews, the addition of a co-director, a marriage and birth – so much of the story is told in extremely brief snippets. The storyline is easy enough to follow, nevertheless, but its concision leaves more than a few questions unanswered. The human drama of a child doing what he feels he uniquely can to ease the trauma of his father’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis is poignant and universal. As far as how Maleonn spent years on this project and acquired the funds to continue and refine his techniques remains rather mysterious.Maleonn somehow finds an anchor of optimism amidst the situation, despite his father’s steady memory decline. That, too, is part of this film’s gift. “Time is more powerful than all the passion you have left,” discovers Maleonn by the end of the film. This expression might be the definition of steampunk lyricism in action.
Our Time Machine is available now as a virtual cinema release.