Our Time Machine (China, 2019) [CAAMFest 2019]

Early in S. Leo Chiang and Yang Sun’s first documentary collaboration, Our Time Machine, successful Shanghai-based artist Maleonn (né Ma Liang) unveils a new project before an audience: “Papa’s Time Machine,” a semi-autobiographical puppet play about his parents, both retired theatre professionals. More precisely, the play is a gift for his father, who was a decades-long director with the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theatre. In his late age, Ma Ke is in the process of writing a book about his theatre days, even as he experiences the weakening of his memory due to the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Reflecting and serving as a way to work through this difficult reality, Maleonn’s “Papa’s Time Machine” concerns a retired pilot who loses his memory but whose son builds a time machine in order to save it. In turn, preparations for the production and staging of the play mirror its content, as Maleonn tries to enlist his father’s collaboration at various points in the project to not only fulfill his lifelong dream of working with his father but also fight against his father’s memory loss.

Also mirroring Maleonn’s play and constituting a time machine itself through its unique outsider-insider perspective of Maleonn and his father is Chiang and Yang’s film. Our Time Machine observes the challenging process of, on one side, Maleonn and his crew creating life-size puppets/props and securing ongoing funding for the completion of the project and, on the other side, his father’s memory decline and the emotional toll and lifestyle changes that it prompts during the same time period. But Chiang and Yang, as if fearful that their film may devolve into a conventional making-of or biography, go a step further: breaking through the confines of documentary conventions, they creatively represent the dreams that haunt and drive Maleonn to art alongside the realities that shape those dreams and, in doing so, create a visually stunning work all their own.

Making use of their specific medium while directly inspired by Maleonn’s work and in close collaboration with him, Chiang and Yang’s Our Time Machine presents a different perspective — from that of Maleonn and his father — on the intimate intertwining of artistic practice and personal relationships, including the multiple temporalities that operate between and bind them. Underwriting this perspective is the filmmakers’ respect for the artistic process and self-expression. At one point in the film, Maleonn voices to the camera the tug-of-war of life and art with which he is confronted: either be a good son, keep to more normal working hours, and thus be able to take care of his parents; or continue with his art and play, whose end does not seem to be in sight due to one setback after another, making the initial timeline of six months become one year, two years, three years. Such is the dramatic, temporal conflict that drives simultaneously Our Time Machine, “Papa’s Time Machine,” and Maleonn.

In fact, the film begins with a famous quote from H.G. Wells on the personal, emotional experiencing of time, in the implied face of the relentlessness of mathematical time:

We all have our time machines, don’t we.

Those that take us back are memories…

And those that carry us forward, are dreams.”

Injecting another tier of temporality is the “Dear child” voiceover narration-turned-poetic-refrain by Maleonn sprinkled throughout the film, the first instance of which begins the film proper. As Maleonn addresses a child and wonders what to say to it about the world, the image-track shows a sonogram. A metaphor? A glimpse into the past? Or the future? Indeed, it is but another significant narrative element in the film that expresses how the weight of time cuts through both family and artistic creation, as they constantly inform each other — not only for Maleonn but also for many other artists. (The meaning of this narrative element fully emerges only at film’s end; as it does so, it also affirms the film’s own status as a time machine/capsule.) Throughout the film, Chiang and Yang actually make frequent use of narrations voiced by Maleonn, strategically placed and paired with specific sequences, to relate what is going on with him internally in the midst of family changes and artistic production/progress.

The film’s most remarkable moment is the dream sequence that appears when Maleonn finds himself at a crossroads vis-à-vis what is happening with his play and his father. Bookended by a seated Maleonn (on his time machine, no less), a montage of images of some of his creations set to varied sound effects takes over the film. Though lasting under two minutes, it is a bold sequence that belongs more in an experimental film than a documentary. But it is in keeping with the film’s more creative approach to capturing not only Maleonn’s subjectivity but also the thematic-visual overlapping of multiple temporalities and life-art/art-life.

Chiang and Yang are ultimately less concerned with the mathematical passing of time — marked by dates, years — and more with the emotional experiencing of time, in dreams, artistic creativity, and relationships old and new — and a way to combat the former.

Our Time Machine was shown at CAAMFest 2019 on May 11. It will be shown again on May 15.