“The machine is broken.” So says Ma Ke, an aging, once-prolific Shanghai opera director in Our Time Machine, referring to his fading memory. Perhaps his use of that sort of terminology—machinery—is what led his artist son, Maleonn, to write and stage an elaborate theater production using life-size mechanical puppets. Autobiographical in nature and featuring a set made of wildly inventive gears and pulleys, the play features a young son who invents a time machine in order to retrieve moments from his father’s past.
I would love to have seen that production, but Our Time Machine seems to be the next best thing. Directors S. Leo Chiang, Yang Sun, and Shuang Liang trace two, tragically intersecting trajectories: the slow, tenuous, upward path Maleonn’s production takes to make it to the stage and the inevitable decline of Ma Ke’s mind due to Alzheimer’s disease. At the start, Maleonn is able to share the project’s scope with his father and get helpful feedback; by the time its theatrical run has concluded, Ma Ke looks up as others are discussing it and says, in confusion, “I saw it too? How come I don’t remember?”
In moments like that, Our Time Machine is crushing. Yet the documentary displays such winsome artistry that you also leave feeling energized. It’s an invigorating act of creative defiance in the face of Alzheimer’s disease. Maleonn’s art lends the movie much of its whimsical aesthetic: there is a montage of his tableau-style photographs; moments where his illustrations for the play are animated by the filmmakers; and of course the wildly imaginative puppets and props themselves, which evoke a steampunk Pinocchio. Editor Bo Li also makes some crucial and affecting choices: cutting from a family photo in which Maleonn’s parents are shockingly young to the image of them sitting together, decades later, at a rehearsal; matching another moment when the puppet father bops the puppet son on the head with a shot of Ma Ke casually doing the same thing to Maleonn.
Early on, Maleonn describes in voiceover the time he and his father were swimming and Ma Ke kept asking him the same question over and over; it’s one of the first times Maleonn suspected something was wrong. As Maleonn is speaking and we see Ma Ke sitting on a chair, hanging his head in frustration, superimposed images of reflecting water slowly appear on the screen. Ma Ke continues to falter as the movie goes on—nothing can be done about that—yet for Maleonn, the stage production still holds the possibility of something like closure, perhaps even hope. In fact, through the play he meets someone and together they bring about new life in the form of a child, one Ma Ke gets to meet—over and over, given his condition. In that baby’s face, there is some confusion, but also life-giving shimmers of recognition.