“Our Time Machine” Documentary Film Review

Our Time Machine, at Tribeca

by HelenHighly

H.G. Wells said, “We all have our time machines. Those that take us back are memories, and those that carry us forward are dreams.” The new documentary film, Our Time Machine, which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival this year, manages to do both, and more. Using a kind of Chinese magic-realism, directors S. Leo Chiang and Yang Sun and editor Bob Lee, along with artist Maleonn, take the viewer to a world that not only interweaves dreams and memories, but also mixes transcendent allegory and deeply-rooted personal reality as part of one amazingly cohesive story, told with both power and grace. The extraordinary work of new director Yang Sun was acknowledged with the TFF Award for Best Cinematography in a Documentary.

Our Time Machine poster

Our Time Machine poster

Our Time Machine is a profound and poetic film that is achingly uplifting as it tells a universal tale of father and son, love and loss, and the exquisite sadness and joy of life – with puppets! If that seems like too many concepts or too grandiose an endeavor, I can only say that it likely would be in the hands of any other directors. But the deft artistry and grounded wisdom of these filmmakers treat life’s most abstract paradoxes in a way that feels like the life-blood of this movie is shot straight into your veins, as pure, essential truth.

It seems nearly impossible for an entirely factual documentary to be such a perfectly formed narrative tale. Can it also be a brilliant piece of poetry? It’s a rare thing, but here it is. Through an entirely unconventional use of mechanics (with a fresh take on puppetry and cinematography), these filmmakers have taken society’s collective pain and re-engineered it into beauty.

Shaken by news of his father’s dementia, Chinese artist Maleonn decides to build an intricately-designed time-machine puppet that will unite him and his father as it transports them to the memories his father has forgotten. If you don’t understand how puppetry can be a true art form, this film will show you. Originally conceived to be a collaborative theatrical project between father and son, an idea thwarted by the quickly advancing illness of his father, Maleonn must reimagine his production to be a parting gift to his father, and when even that fails due to his father’s inability to understand, Maleonn is left talking to the puppet he built, as if it were his own son: “Dear son, I want to try something impossible  – to love another person. There is no practical purpose, because love is like art. There is no reason. We do it because we can’t help ourselves.”

Our Time Machine rehearsal photo by Maleonn

Our Time Machine rehearsal photo by Maleonn

Maleonn follows in the artistic footsteps of his parents; his mother was an actress and his father, Ma Ke, was a long-time director of the Peking Opera Theater. Through the lens of a father-son relationship, Our Time Machine explores what it means to be an artist in China in the 20th century and today. From the condemnations of the Cultural Revolution to contemporary financial and social challenges of putting on a complex and wholly original hybrid art performance, directors S. Leo Chiang and Yang Sun probe the artistic impulse across generations. Mixing haunting imagery with real-life moments, Our Time Machine conveys the mystery and consolation of art against the ravages of time.

Maleonn in Our Time Machine

Maleonn in Our Time Machine

There are several puppets in the movie – both people and machines. In addition to the time machine puppet, there is an airplane, which the elderly-father puppet senses circling above him. Director Chiang explained to me that the plane is symbolic of a bird – a crane, and in China there is an ancient belief that when you die, you ride a crane to heaven. In the film, the father puppet repeatedly says he sees or hears an airplane coming, and the grown-son-puppet reassures him, “No, there is no plane.” Even if you don’t know about the Chinese crane metaphor, it is clear this plane represents the thing both father and son want to avoid – death. The time machine not only takes the father back to the lost memories in his past, it becomes the instrument that his son uses to avoid the future he fears for his father and himself. But will it work in real life?

Our Time Machine, Maleonn builds a large puppet

Our Time Machine, Maleonn builds a large puppet

Helen Highly Analytical does not cry easily during movies. And I did not cry in this one. But it was quite a surprise to feel myself tear up when I was only speaking about this movie as I interviewed its filmmakers. I want so much to tell you, my readers, the pair of beautifully symmetrical repetitive sentences that frame this story, but I don’t want to cheat you of the experience of revelation that will come when you hear them in context. And it does feel like a genuine revelation.

Out Time Machine, "Son, can you float on water?"

Out Time Machine, “Son, can you float on water?”

As the Baby Boomer generation ages, we are met with an increasing number of emotionally grueling stories, told in films and in books, about the horrors of illness, the challenges of eldercare, and the miseries of troubled relationships between adult-children and their flawed or failing parents. At the same time, so many of us are suffering through those experiences in our real lives. The prospect of going to the movies to relive it on the big screen seems to me unappealing at best. I find myself avoiding films on these subjects, despite often being assured they are excellent or insightful. I feel I already have too much insight to bear. But this film is something different.

Especially in America, convention dictates that every story – even the saddest ones – must end with some sort of redemption, something learned, some problem resolved, and that expectation too often results in a contrived happy ending being slapped onto the conclusion of a story. Endings are hard – perhaps the most important and difficult part of any story. And if the writer resists the phony and simplistic happily-ever-after, then we often are left with an unsatisfying bitterness at the end – a bad taste in our mouths. In the film world, I call those “Life Sucks and Then You Die Movies” – not highly recommended.

With true stories, we often hear the justification, “That’s what really happened. You can’t change the facts.” But a real artist, a dedicated artist, will mine that real-life ending for a moment that is as unequivocally accurate and honest as it is transformative. It’s the sign of a true master – to be able to craft a beautiful ending without a whiff of anything artificial or the feel of anything forced. When we see that happen… it’s like a miracle. That’s what this documentary is. It is truth at its best – miraculous.

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Interested in another smart, well-made Asian-American film? (This one is in English.) Winner of the Tribeca Film Institute and AT&T Untold Stories award, Lucky Grandma is a dark comedy about immigrant life, the vulnerabilities of aging, and the primacy of family. Mostly it’s hilarious with a knock-out performance by Tsai Chin. Click here to read about it and another Untold Stories film.

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