×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Our Time Machine’

Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang's moving documentary follows a Shanghai artist staging a play for his father, who's suffering from Alzheimer's.

Director:
Yang Sun, S. Leo Chiang
With:
Maleonn, Ma Ke, Zheng Wei Tong, Ma Duo, Tianyi Huang.

1 hour 21 minutes

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.

 

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Our Time Machine'

Reviewed online, Chicago, May 13, 2019. (In Tribeca Film Festival — Documentary Competition). Running time: 81 MIN.

Production: A Shanghai Flying House Film Co., Emei Film Investment Co., Shanghai Eternity Media & Culture Co., Youku Information Technology Co. presentation of a Waling Iris Media, Fish + Bear Pictures, Breezy Doc, Independent Television Services production. (International sales: Cat&Docs, Paris.) Producers: Yang Sun, S. Leo Chiang. Executive producers: Jean Tsien, Sally Jo Fifer, Nick Fraser.

Crew: Director: Yang Sun, S. Leo Chiang. Camera (color, widescreen): Sun, Shuang Liang. Editor: Bob Lee. Music: Paul Brill.

With: Maleonn, Ma Ke, Zheng Wei Tong, Ma Duo, Tianyi Huang.

More Film

  • Fiddlin'

    Film Review: 'Fiddlin''

    Not many forms of music have “old-” actually built into their name as a prefix. So it’s a given that the practitioners of the 200-year-old genre known as “old-time music” will wear their antiquity proudly in “Fiddlin’,” a documentary set in and around the 80th annual Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Va. What may not [...]

  • Jonah Hill attends the press conference

    Jonah Hill Passes on Role in 'The Batman'

    After being offered a role in “The Batman,” Jonah Hill has moved on from the project. Why exactly Hill is passing is currently unknown, and insiders tell Variety that when the news was initially reported, it was very early in the negotiations and that a deal was far from closing. The news comes after Zoe [...]

  • Daniel Kaluuya Elizabeth Moss

    SCAD Savannah Film Festival Honorees Include Daniel Kaluuya, Elisabeth Moss

    Daniel Kaluuya, Elisabeth Moss, Danielle Macdonald, Aldis Hodge, Valerie Pachner, Samantha Morton, Sienna Miller, Alan Silvestri and Olivia Wilde are set to be honored at the 22nd Annual SCAD Savannah Film Festival. Breakout Award honorees include Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Jharrel Jerome, Mena Massoud and Camila Morrone. Macdonald, who appears on Netflix in “Unbelievable” and [...]

  • Alexander Skarsgard, Nicole Kidman. Alexander Skarsgard,

    Nicole Kidman, Alexander Skarsgard to Reunite for Robert Eggers' 'The Northman'

    With his latest film “The Lighthouse” set to bow this weekend, Robert Eggers’ next film has cast two leads, “Big Little Lies” alums Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård. The pic, titled “The Northman,” is described as a Viking revenge saga set in Iceland at the turn of the 10th century. In talks to join Kidman [...]

  • Jessica Henwick

    'Matrix 4' Taps 'Iron Fist' Star Jessica Henwick

    Jessica Henwick is in final negotiations to star in the upcoming fourth installment of the “Matrix” franchise. She joins Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss, who will be reprising their roles in the film, as well as Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who was tapped as one of the leads last week. Neil Patrick Harris also just joined [...]

  • Frozen 2

    Record 32 Animated Feature Films Submitted for Oscars

    “The Addams Family,” “Frozen II,” “Toy Story 4,” “Abominable” and “The Secret Life of Pets 2” are among the record 32 movies submitted for the animated feature film category at the 2020 Oscars. Last year’s Academy Awards race boasted 25 entries, while 2017 had 26 and 2016 had 27 (a then-record). The list of contenders [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content