The motto of artist Maleonn’s family could very well be “the show must go on.” His father Ma Ke managed to direct over eighty Chinese Opera productions, even though he was forced to take time off for the Cultural Revolution. Now the artist born Ma Liang is determined to pay tribute to his father with an experimental puppet show while the senior Ma can still appreciate it. Maleonn’s costly, time-consuming project is documented in S. Leo Chiang & Yang Sun’s Our Time Machine, which screens during the 2020 Palm Springs International Film Festival.
Even though Ma Ke has rewritten several epic drafts of his memoirs, he is losing his memory to Alzheimer’s. Watching it happen is a painful experience for Maleonn, but it directly inspired his new project, Papa’s Time Machine. He often used puppets in his photography, sort of like the work of Gregory Crewdson, but with a pronounced Pinocchio influence. However, this will be his first time mounting a puppetry production on stage.
The allegorical story follows the son of an aging aviator, who creates a time machine to remind his father of the important events of their lives. Unfortunately, developing the puppets and the richly detailed sets proves to be far more complicated (and expensive) than Maleonn and his production managers initially estimated. Soon, the Time Machine project is wildly over budget and running two years behind schedule. On the plus side, Maleonn falls in love with the co-director he recruits for the show.
There is a weird moment in the film when Maleonn tells his parents to ignore he might say and just follow the advice of the Chinese Communist Party instead. Presumably, that is the price it took to get Our Time Machine approved by the Chinese Film Authorities. Of course, it is hard to believe he really means it, especially considering the hardships his parent endured during the Cultural Revolution, despite the fact he was a direct product of those times. The hard labor was particularly taxing for his mother to endure, but she saw that pregnant women were allowed more time to rest, so hence she was soon pregnant with him.
Frankly, many viewers will wish Chiang and Yang showed more of Maleonn’s show. He directly acknowledges his debt of inspiration to H.G. Wells and Pinocchio, but there also definitely seems to be a Little Prince vibe going on. Regardless, it is a highly distinctive work of stagecraft.
It seems pretty clear Papa’s Time Machine has been an enormous money-loser for Maleonn, but Chiang & Yang’s documentary should definitely increase the international recognition and demand for his work. Despite an occasionally awkward moment, Our Time Machine is a surprisingly poignant portrait of an artist as a family man. Recommended for anyone who follows the contemporary Chinese art scene or traditional Chinese opera, Our Time Machine screens this Friday (1/3), next Friday (1/10), and the following Saturday (1/11) as part of PSIFF 2020. Happy New Year.