The beginning of Our Time Machine arrests on birth imagery, a sonogram of wiggling mass within a womb. Directed by Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang, this documentary is an ode to the mortality of the mind of an artist and his relationship with his artist father.
Set mostly in Shanghai, the documentary follows the Chinese artist Maleonn furnishing what could be his personal magnum opus in a science fiction puppet play. His motives go beyond fashioning thought-provoking entertainment. Maleonn hopes this production can bridge the emotional gap between him and his ailing father. As the pre-production stages blossom, Maleonn is contending with the ailing state of his father, Ma Ke, also a man of the theatre. As a maestro who survived artistic oppression under the China’s Cultural Revolution, Ma Ke holds a great pride over his history with directing over 80 Shanghai Chinese Opera Theater productions. However, the old master is fading as Alzheimer’s invades his once creative brain. Maleonn convinces his father co-direct some sequences. But later, Ma Ke forgets he collaborated with his son, let alone witnessed the production.
The plot of Maleonn’s puppet play, “Papa’s Time Machine,” is complicated in design yet humble in its premise: a son builds a time machine for his aging father so they can recapture the latter’s decaying memories. With a backdrop of whirling clock cogs and machinery, the mechanical puppets and contraptions are delightfully out of a child’s dreamscape. In an interval of the play, a flurry of screened imagery assault the senses as quick as the concept of life flashing before your eyes.
Our Time Machine impeccably synergizes in its plotlines and ruminations and the birth and death of a production. The camera takes you into the molding, as the Pinocchio-inspired mechanical puppets are assembled with their skeletal steampunk bodies brimming with brass and rusty hues, decorated corporeal shapes that suggest how we process the anatomical shells as something both extraordinary and breakable. Every piece assembled and disassembled evoked reactions from me. When Maleonn’s team is finally able to find dexterity in the puppet fingers, I felt exhilaration with the crew.
The film lays out delicate touches of disappointment without ever succumbing to despair. As Murphy’s Law goes, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Maleonn’s production is exquisite but lacks investors for stage longevity. The pacing lets us lament this misfortune while admiring the production’s fortitude to endure.
Editor Bob Li treats the sequences and voiceovers with lyrical precision. Through the process, the documentary lets us confront the painstaking vision and mortality of theatre, paralleled with Maleonn contemplating the signs of his father’s slipping mortality. The camera captures a golden moment where Maleonn sits in his own time machine chair, as if willing an item of fictional powers to reverse time. Ma Ke is given plenty to say, whether or not he remembers the events before him. In his lucid moments, Ma Ke mourns the times he can talk about the intricacies of his stage work.
This documentary is an affecting examination about how artists cling onto their visions and sensations. It fears as Maleonn and Ma Ke do when they know their visions will slip from their grasp while also making peace with the inevitable transition to the void. Our Time Machine might deploy too many endings, but each epilogue feels precious as if it is snatching as much time as it could with its subjects.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
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