April 29, 2019
by Carla Hay
“Our Time Machine”
Directed by Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang
Chinese with subtitles
World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.
“Our Time Machine” is a documentary that is the epitome of “hurry up and wait.” Chinese artist Maleonn has decided to collaborate with his father, Ma Ke, on a life-sized, elaborate puppet stage production called “Papa’s Time Machine,” based on the memories that father and son have about their lives. It’s a race against time because Ma Ke is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and his losing his memory. But mounting a stage production like this can also move at a slow pace, since it’s not exactly the type of commercial production that can easily find investors.
Maleonn, who was single and in his early 40s when filming of this documentary began, is very close to his parents, who have been married for more than 50 years. Maleonn also has an older sister named Ma Duo. Both of their parents come from artistic backgrounds. His mother was an actress, who says she got pregnant to get out of hard labor. His father used to be the artistic director of the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theater and the director of the Peking Opera Theater.
Ma Ke’s career was negatively affected when he banned from working for 10 years during China’s Cultural Revolution, which ended when Maleonn was 5 years old. The reason for the ban isn’t made very clear in the documentary, which suggests that the family might still ashamed about this part of their history. When Ma Ke was allowed to work in theater again, he spent so much time working that it took away from his family life at home. Maleonn is still coming to grips with past resentment over his father’s absence, and he hopes that “Papa’s Time Machine” will help bring them closer together.
The documentary, which is slower-paced than what most Americans are used to seeing in films, shows the painstaking process of bringing the production to the stage. Maleonn’s home studio becomes populated with the elaborate metal puppets that he has created for the show. He also has to find the right puppeteers and write the show’s dialogue. One of the people on the team is the show’s co-director Tiyani, a patient and pretty collaborator who eventually becomes romantically involved with longtime bachelor Maleonn.
Making the puppets is fairly easy compared to finding investors to help bring the production to a theater stage. In between rehearsals, Maelonn travels to various places in search of investors, including New York City for the Pitch New Works program at the International Society of Performing Arts. Maleonn gets rejection after rejection, but still persists because he has always dreamed of collaborating with his father.
It might be too much of a spoiler to reveal if Maleonn’s dream comes true, but to give you an idea how much time passes in the documentary, Maleonn and Tiyani get married and have a daughter together, and Ma Ke turns 100 years old. At a family party to celebrate Ma Ke’s 100th birthday, his memory has deteriorated even further, because he constantly has to be reminded that the child he sees with Maleonn is Maleonn’s daughter. Maleonn tries to mask his heartbreak over his father’s failing health by saying that having to repeatedly introduce his daughter to his father has a bright side, because it’s worth seeing his father’s happy reaction over and over again.
As for the “Papa’s Time Machine” stage production, the puppets are truly a work of art, but based on what the documentary shows, the stage production’s storyline seems a little thin and perhaps a little too personal to appeal to a broad audience. The movie doesn’t have any big, suspenseful moments, which might disappoint people who are expecting more dramatic tension. Even though “Our Time Machine” is about a big, ambitious stage production with some visually stunning puppets, the documentary’s smaller, quieter moments with Maleonn and his family are where the movie is at its best.
UPDATE: The PBS series “POV” will premiere “Our Time Machine” on September 28, 2020.