If the best things are worth waiting for, that certainly goes for poignant documentaries on family ties, legacy and channeling our most complex emotions through art. I first saw Our Time Machine, a film by S. Leo Chiang and Yang Sun, over a year ago at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, a week-long event that’s made a name for itself by featuring some of the most impressive films of the year. Now, the film is available via Siskel Film Center’s virtual cinema, and it is very much worth seeking out.
The film follows Chinese visual artist and puppeteer Maleonn as he navigates this father’s progression into dementia by creating a steam-punk style stage play where a young man bonds with his own father by creating a time machine that allows them to revisit their best shared memories even as the elder forgets them. Weaving together the journey to producing the show alongside Maleonn’s own personal milestones, the film gently and beautifully explores how children confront their parents’ mortality and how the inevitable passage of time may lead to change, but that change doesn’t always have to be sad.
Maleonn was raised by artists, his father, Ma Ke, a prolific director at the Peking Opera known for his innovative vision and unforgiving logistics, the combination of which resulted in some of the country’s most well-regarded theatrical productions. Now in his 80s, Ma’s mind is fading and though he can remind you again and again (and he does) that he produced more than 80 shows, he struggles when asked about the creative details or, sometimes with his doctor, something as simple as what day it is. It’s hard to watch him struggle, as Maleonn, his mother and his sister, Ma Duo, know all too well. It all wears on them in different ways, Maleonn finding it hard to focus on solutions for the various creative obstacles he and his theater company encounter in creating their unique puppets for the show. Meanwhile, his mother cries quietly over dinner while she tells him how hard it is to care for her husband in his current state. And of course, it’s heartbreaking to see Ma himself grow frustrated and defeated as his memory betrays him.
After more than a year of work and planning, Maleonn and his team finally present a world premiere of their new production, puppeteers in all black (including very on-brand bowler hats with vintage goggles) serving as shadows operating the robotic main characters with their emotive eyes and dexterous wooden fingers. Though he can’t remember the details of his own numerous productions, Ma Ke is able to attend his son’s big show and appreciate the story. Shots of him watching the show are enough to melt even the iciest hearts.
The filmmakers took their time making a film about the passage of it, chronicling not only Maleonn’s production and his father’s illness but also the artist’s evolving personal life, as he and his assistant director Tianyi fall in love, get engaged and even have a daughter of their own. As he commits to these next phases of his life, learning what it means to commit to someone else, to become a father himself, his perspective on his father’s illness shifts, too. Instead of being angry or bitter about what he’s lost (and what his father is losing, too), Maleonn comes to understand that, though it’s not as easy to look back on his memories with Ma Ke any more, there are still plenty more to be made and relished.