For his latest project, Shanghai artist Maleonn, a tireless creator of life-sized puppets and mechanical objects, is in a race against the clock, desperate to stage an autobiographical play about time and memory before his father succumbs to Alzheimer’s. The relationship between Maleonn’s abstract production, called “Papa’s Time Machine,” and his complicated feelings for a father at once inspirational and distant, is a delicate subject, but Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang’s moving documentary “Our Time Machine” handles it with sensitivity and insight. Maleonn’s wondrous creations are enough of an attraction on their own, but the film, which picked up the cinematography award in the documentary section at Tribeca, has many more layers to reveal about the legacy of Cultural Revolution, familial relationships, the agonies of love and loss and the circle of life.
On one level, Sun and Chiang have the makings of a “Hearts of Darkness” or a “Burden of Dreams” on their hands, following an artist whose grand-scale personal project is causing massive delays and budgetary overruns, with no end in sight. Maleonn is a renowned conceptual artist, but with “Papa’s Time Machine,” he’s working in theater for the first time, and creating the puppets and elaborate set pieces are only the start of a multiyear ordeal. Yet the focus of “Our Time Machine” isn’t on indulgent abuses of money and labor, or even a visionary’s tireless pursuit of perfection. Instead, Sun and Chiang are compelled by the mission at the heart of Maleonn’s work and how he desperately seeks a meaningful collaboration with his father while they can still reflect on a shared past.
During the Cultural Revolution, Maleonn’s parents were forced out to the countryside to pick cotton, a labor so taxing for his mother that she got pregnant just to stay out of the fields. When they finally moved back to the city, Maleonn was 5 years old and his father, Ma Ke, eager to make up for a decade of lost time as a theater director, immersed himself into staging Peking operas for the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theater. (His pride in directing more than 80 productions is so enduring that he repeats the fact constantly as his memory fades.) Maleonn doesn’t remember his dad doing much more than occasionally meting out punishment when he misbehaved; a conversation they had in the park when he was 14 and learning to ride a bike stayed with him because it was the first time he was made to feel like a grown-up.
As Ma Ke has reached his twilight years, the father-son bond has improved, and Maleonn has written “Papa’s Time Machine” in part because he craves one last chance to work alongside his dad, who knows a thing or two about putting on a show. Though Ma Ke’s confused state makes that dream all but impossible to achieve, the play itself has a powerful autobiographical bent, centering on a device a son builds for his ailing father so he can retrieve lost memories. Through puppet work and shadow play, “Papa’s Time Machine” draws on Maleonn’s own formative memories of childhood, and his ambivalent feelings toward a dad who was the primary inspiration of his life but was often cold and absent.
The film catches Maleonn at a fascinating inflection point in his life. At 40, he devotes himself night and day to his painstaking work, at the expense of personal relationships, but he’s keenly aware of what artistic obsession has cost his father and he doesn’t want to make the same mistakes. His determination to reengage with his parents as Ma Ke’s medical issues worsen is both the familial obligation of an only child and an extraordinary opportunity to change their relationship — and perhaps change the course of his life in the process. Sun and Chiang strike a tricky balance between a high-stakes making-of documentary and an intimate, observational family portrait, but Maleonn is such a thoughtful, sensitive, brilliant subject that the film is compelling no matter where on the creative spectrum they find him. There’s a sense that the artist is tackling the biggest challenge of his career for just two people: for the father he wants to reach one last time, and for himself, as he learns from their relationship and quietly resolves to do things differently.