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Thread: OUR TIME MACHINE (S. Leo Chiang, Yang Sun 2019)

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    OUR TIME MACHINE (S. Leo Chiang, Yang Sun 2019)



    A failing but beautiful project

    The prominent forty-something Shanghai multimedia conceptual artist Maleonn's relationship with his aging father, a former Peking opera director responsible for 80 productions but now losing his memory, is the subject of the touching, sometimes scary, often beautiful documentary Our Time Machine.

    The specter of dementia hovers over this film. But Ma Ke, the father, is both central and peripheral. He is the spur to Maleonn's frantic period of creativity depicted here, but he is increasingly a phantom, fading from view, losing the mental power to continue being a collaborator and losing touch with his once rich and intense working life. In between is his wife, Maleonn's mother, Ma Duo, a retired actor, still compos mentis but gradually overwhelmed by living with a man who is not quite there anymore, and getting steadily worse.

    Maleonn, the focus, is unmistakably an artist and an engaging, deeply present one. Big, wide-eyed, with an earring, a little goofy, warm, sensitive, intense, he is the film's on screen narrator and central figure. His work involves machine engineering, photography, sculpture, and other media. But when he learns about his father's memory loss and wants to pay homage and reach out to him with something major, he turns to something new and involves a large studio and a whole crew building puppets aimed at a show, "Time Machine." It will depict construction of a bird-winged flying craft, a fantasy Wright brothers plane to fly back in time and recover his father's fading past, disappearing memories.

    Part of the beauty of the film lies in the finely crafted, textured sub-life-sized puppets, with their long articulated hands and birdlike, charming movements. They are walked and manipulated by numerous young artist-participants dressed in black wearing Chaplinesque hats who hover around and bring them to life. The show remains a bit of a mystery, even when we glimpse a full-scale preview performance before a theater audience with Maleonn's father and mother appreciatively present. What's clear is that this is turning into an un-finishable project, set for completion in three months, then six months, then a year, then two, with money running out.

    The impossibility of completing the amazing, beautiful, touchingly human and complex performance piece despite the involvement of so many attractive, energetic young people, is the objective correlative for Maleonn's unrealizable wish to save his father. Ma Ke asks a doctor, who reports that his memory loss has increased appreciably since the last visit, if he can't prescribe him medications to counteract this process, and learns he's already taking them. He's forgotten. Ma Duo wants for them both to move into a nursing home. Maleonn doesn't want that and suggests instead he might buy a house for the three of them to live in. But that doesn't happen.

    Yet Ma Ke is still often present. Sometimes in the intensity of the moment he makes good sense and contributes to a discussion, and at first, Maleonn makes him a collaborator in "Time Machine", consulting on things. But then he becomes more and more lost and is living in a "foggy world," as he himself says. He says he used to remember lines and music when performers of his opera productions lost their way, but now he's forgotten the operas or his productions. At the doctor's office he can't recall what day, month, or year it is. The image of such lostness is a terrifying prospect for any of us getting older, and forgetting things more.

    The starting point of the film comes when Maleonn is in a swimming pool and Ma Ke asks him over and over if he has learned to float.

    The film fills in key context. Ma Ke and Ma Duo were sent to the country to pick cotton during the Cultural Revolution. The work is too hard for her and she gets pregnant (with the future Maleonn) to be excused from it. Five years later when the Cultural Revolution ended Ma Ke entered with mad energy into theater to make up for lost time. He had no time for Maleonn, except occasionally to discipline him. Now Maleonn says he does nothing but work and has no time to live or find a girlfriend.

    But as the joint projects of "Time Machine" and Ma Ke's memory fail, Maleonn finds a wife. The loneliness of the artist life and dementia are counteracted by many convivial scenes and affectionate moments between Maleonn and his father. Ma Ke cant remember who Maleonn's baby girl is now, but Maleonn is accepting of this, and delights in telling him over and over, "It's your grandchild!" Amazing little film.

    Our Time Machine, 86 mins., debuted at Tribeca Apr. 2019,winning the best cinematography award there, and showed in at least nine other festivals, winning best documentary at CAM Fest and best international doc at LAAFF. It is available online now. Metascoire 84.


    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-02-2020 at 01:05 PM.


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