Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang’s new documentary, Our Time Machine, tells the story of a family of artists living in Shanghai. Maleonn, the son, is attempting to stage an ambitious work of puppet theater about his aging father, Ma Ke—a prolific director of Chinese Opera. Maleonn’s play, “Papa’s Time Machine,” is a poetic, multimedia fantasy in which a son travels through time in order to retrieve his father’s fading memories. In reality, Ma Ke’s memories are fading, and it becomes clear “Papa’s Time Machine” is a reflexive reckoning with Maleonn’s feelings about his father’s deteriorating mental acuity and, ultimately, his mortality.
“…a poetic, multimedia fantasy in which a son travels through time in order to retrieve his father’s fading memories.”
What runs the risk of being an overly dense symbolic exercise in mirroring art and life turns out to be a delicate and elegantly composed series of deeply human moments. We see a family at their most tender and unguarded in Our Time Machine. The film deftly weaves an unexpectedly compelling, low key narrative of artistic frustration and aging, from these moments. The overall effect is a familial drama devoid of the typical narrative machinations of popular “documentary.” In place of the expected “stakes raising,” one has come to expect from the narrativizing of reality (although the film does engage in some of this), the viewer is given a privileged view of situations that could be happening in their own kitchen.
In one of the film’s most powerful moments, as Ma Ke’s memory deteriorates, his frustration and hostility towards his own mental state become more than his wife can bear. Maleonn sits down with his parents to discuss the prospect of moving them to a retirement home. Maleonn is resistant. He hopes his play will begin to generate enough income to buy a house where he, his girlfriend, and his parents can live. Maleonn’s artistic ambitions set against the heartbreaking reality of his mother’s tears paints a familiar picture, one of generational push and pull, and individual desires clashing with the needs of the family.
“Depending on the day you’ve had and the last time you talked to your parents, it’s a good idea to keep the Kleenex handy.”
Our Time Machine unfolds perfectly, introducing new layers of character and story in a natural rhythm that seems to faithfully mirror life while gently molding it into a poetic vision full of real-world resonance. The unsensational ethos of Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang’s film is what sets it apart, and even opens the door to the truly profound and mysterious. A conversation between father and son about the nature of artistic collaboration is intelligent and engaging, with Ma Ke telling Maleonn, “the relationship between collaborators is closer than father and son.” The film is sprinkled with gems such as these, that offer real, unique insight into both the characters and life itself.
The vision of life’s twilight years presented in the film is frank while still remaining expansive. Scenes of Ma Ke struggling to remember dates and events are presented as what they are: frustrating realities of aging. It’s the characters’ perspectives on these inevitabilities though that gives the film a wider purview. Aside from being a well crafted and nuanced allegory on time and aging, children and parents, Our Time Machine succeeds in giving the viewer a glance into how one family sees itself and its future. Depending on the day you’ve had and the last time you talked to your parents, it’s a good idea to keep the Kleenex handy.
Our Time Machine (2019) Produced and Directed by Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang. Featuring Maleonn, Ma Ke, Ma Duo
9 out of 10 stars