'Our Time Machine': Film Review | Tribeca 2019

Tribeca Film Festival
Intriguingly grounds the creative process in the specificity of individual experience.

Chinese filmmaker Yang Sun and American director S. Leo Chiang partner on a documentary profile of prolific visual artist Maleonn.

Inspired by childhood memories and the fleeting passage of time, noted Chinese multimedia artist Maleonn conceives an ambitious project that tests the limits of his creative talents in Our Time Machine, an affecting but somewhat episodic documentation of momentous artistic transformation. Making the shift from photo collage to an original stage production forces Maleonn into untested waters, prompting him to turn to his father’s theatrical experience for guidance and support.

As the son of a Chinese opera director, Maleonn grew up heavily influenced by traditional arts, even when his family was sent to live in the countryside during the repressive era of the Cultural Revolution during the 1960s and '70s. After they were allowed to return to Shanghai and his father Ma Ke became director of the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theater, Maleonn saw less and less of his dad, who produced more than 80 performances during his career.

Following his father’s retirement years later, Ma Liang (who had since adopted the artistic pseudonym Maleonn) finally finds the opportunity for the two to reconnect, eager to co-create a collaborative project drawing on his skills as a photographer and installation artist. Radically shifting gears in his mid-40s, Maleonn begins work on a time-travel theater piece titled Papa’s Time Machine, “a sci-fi stage play with mechanical puppetry,” inspired by his desire to recapture some of his memories about growing up with his dad. When an Alzheimer’s diagnosis confirms Ma’s rapidly advancing dementia, Maleonn becomes even more determined to honor his father’s career and their shared family life.

Co-directors Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang invest significant time laying in the background on Maleonn’s idiosyncratic project. The autobiographically scripted performance centers on two human-looking puppets constructed at about 70 percent scale, so they can be mounted on the chest of a puppeteer with a harness and manipulated directly. Distinctly steampunk in style, “Makuji” represents a youthful Maleonn, who is trying to assist the larger “Papa” puppet, a former pilot, with regaining his fading memories.

The construction of the two puppets and the refrigerator-sized time machine device completely consumes Maleonn’s time, as well as the efforts of several assistants and technicians. Fabrication of the devices turns into a lengthy ordeal, pushing the theatrical debut back by a year and then by almost two. “The original budget doesn’t apply anymore,” comments the project’s manager, as Maleonn’s boundless creativity constantly demands the input of additional resources.

It’s never entirely clear how Maleonn funds the endeavor and covers the cost of staff, materials and workshop rental, although one young investor briefly visits the team at work. Funds eventually run so low he contemplates laying off some of his team, but as word spreads about the project in the art and theater worlds, interest continues to grow, eventually leading to a limited-engagement run in Shanghai and then a traveling production through China.

Also lacking is a comprehensive discussion of Maleonn’s creative process, which involves custom fabricating devices from hand-built or scavenged parts based on the artist’s pencil sketches. This determined focus explains why he says at one point, “I create work every day, I don’t have any personal life,” but after he brings on female co-director Tianyi, he begins to make room for romance in his life.

The technical and logistical details of the project are constantly fascinating, but it’s these emotional moments that pack most of the film’s power. Although the concluding segments feel a bit disjointed, shot a year after the scenes immediately previous, observing the progression of Ma Ke’s dementia is devastating, even though in typically pragmatic fashion Maleonn manages to look on the bright side of his dad’s battle with memory loss.

Production companies: Shanghai Flying House Film, Walking Iris Media, Fish + Bear Pictures, ITVS
Directors: Yang Sun, S. Leo Chiang
Screenwriters: S. Leo Chiang, Bob Lee
Producers: Yang Sun, S. Leo Chiang
Executive producers: Jean Tsien, Sally Jo Fifer, Nick Fraser
Director of photography: Yang Sun, Shuang Liang
Editor: Bob Lee
Composer: Paul Brill

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Sales: ICM Partners

81 minutes