An uplifting celebration of the love between a son and his father, both theatre directors, as the latter declines in health

Our Time Machine

Source: Tribeca Film Festival

Our Time Machine

Dirs: S. Leo Chiang, Yang Sun. US/China. 2019. 81 mins

The eternal circle of life is poignantly evoked in Our Time Machine. The chronicle of an ambitious stage production grows into a celebration of the love between Chinese conceptual artist Maleonn and a father engulfed by the failings of age and the fog of Alzheimers.This captivating documentary should strike a universal chord. Festival programmers and audiences will recognise themselves in the complex emotional tug of the ties that bind.

An elegant, focused piece of storytelling

Maleonn is a very engaging individual. Seen at work in Shanghai, he is energetic, playful and giddy with the delight of creation. His work reflects that personality in photography and puppetry with a romantic, childlike wonder at the world. His parents, Ma Ke and Ma Duo, are both theatre professionals and have become part of his process, gamely posing as a Nationalist general and a female special agent in one photograph.

Maleonn’s latest project Papa’s Time Machine is an intricate time travel theatrical adventure, using art as a means to connect with his father and rekindle cherished memories of their past. Documentary directors Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang follow the project from the imaginative Terry Gilliam-style drawings and early designs, through the struggles for financing and the detailed engineering and fine tuning required of the human-sized robot puppets.

The evolution of the stage production gives the film a solid structure from which the directors then explore the bond between Maleonn and Ma Ke. There are intimate, discreetly observed scenes of family gatherings and visits to the doctor that mark the inevitable decline in Ma Ke’s cognitive abilities. We see the commitment to work that father and son share. Ma Ke directed more than 80 shows and proudly declares himself to have been “ the scariest director of the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theatre”. We also see Malleon’s mother Ma Duo and her heroic efforts to manage events and navigate through the new normal of their lives. A move to the Cherish Retirement Home is approached with good spirits.

Our Time Machine is very carefully balanced between the personal and the professional. An elegant, focused piece of storytelling finds the space to explore the family history revealing the way in which these lives are inextricably linked with the history of China itself. Family photos and newspaper clippings provide a treasure trove of glimpses into the past. Ma Ke recalls the Sino-Japanese war of his childhood and both Ma Ke and Ma Duo were among the artists banished to the country during the Cultural Revolution. The need to create art has remained a constant down the years and across the generations.

Our Time Machine could have been a very maudlin tale and yet it is more of a celebration than a lamentation. Maleonn has reached that stage in life of realising that nothing lasts forever. It makes the time with his father all the more precious. During the period covered by the film, Maleonn finds romance and becomes a father. Ma Ke delights in the arrival of a granddaughter and Maleonn reaches a philosophical acceptance of his father’s frailty and the ways of the world. The count-your-blessings conclusion lends a further grace note of comfort to an already uplifting, warm-hearted story.

Production companies: Walking Iris Media, Fish + Bear Pictures. Breezy Doc, Independent Television Service (ITVS)

International sales: CAT & Docs

Producers: S. Leo Chiang Yang Sun

Cinematography: Yang Sun, Shuang Lang

Screenplay S. Leo Chiang, Bo Li

Editor: Bo Li

Music: Paul Brill

Featuring: Maleonn, Ma Ke, Zhengwei Tong, Ma Duo