A son honors father, stricken with Alzheimer's, in moving Tribeca film by Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang
Early on in the documentary Our Time Machine, Chinese artist Maleonn (aka Ma Liang) relates a story about an upsetting moment he experienced with his aging father. They were at a swimming pool together; after the younger man swam a lap, his father asked him, "Can you float on water?"
"Sure, dad. You taught me this when I was a kid," Maleonn replied. Then he swam another lap. And his father asked him again, "Maleonn, can you float on water?"
Lap after lap this was repeated--a total of five times--the same question, followed by the same answer.
The father is losing his memory, and the son is sad to see him confused.
When filmmaker Yang Sun heard the swimming pool story from a friend, it struck him deeply.
"I'm like, 'Ohmygod, I have a huge image of this whole film [in my head]. I felt very inspired," Yang tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "So I came to Maleonn and said, 'Can I shoot a documentary on you?'...The reason is the swimming pool story. I think the story just breaks everyone's heart."
It's heartbreaking above all for anyone with a parent slipping into dementia. Maleonn's father, Ma Ke, was the highly-respected artistic director of The Shanghai Chinese Opera Theater. He directed more than 80 productions before retiring, a number that would have been higher had he not been banned from working during China's Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The documentary follows Maleonn as he tries to fulfill a long-held dream before his father's conditions worsens: to collaborate with his dad on a work of theater.
"I must do some drama work for his memory," Maleonn recalls thinking. "I know he will lose all memory. I think it's a good ending and everybody needs a good ending."
In the documentary, Maleonn describes his dream project as "a sci-fi stage play with mechanical puppetry." In an interview with a Chinese radio program, he provides additional details: "The father is losing his memory, and the son is sad to see him confused. The son built a time machine so he can bring the father back to his childhood when he was five or ten. They go back again and again to revisit moments in their lives."
To bring the idea to life, Maleonn drew from his extraordinary wellspring of creativity. He and a team of artisans and puppeteers constructed stunning life-size puppets to represent father and son at different stages, from the boy's childhood onward. It's a dreamlike steampunk vision, consonant with previous photographic work that has made Maleonn
China's leading conceptual artist.
It's mischievous--I guess that's the right word. And profound.
"It's innocent, but it's fantastical, magical," says S. Leo Chiang, co-director of Our Time Machine, of Maleonn's body of work. "It's mischievous--I guess that's the right word. And profound. I really think that a lot of his work touches you in a really surprising way. You see it and you don't think there's any political or any kind of sort of bigger content--you think it's a joke. But you look closer and you're like, 'Ohmygod, it's saying something really, really big and important' and it's about humanity."
A gallery of images of Maleonn's work, from photography to Our Time Machine
At first, Ma Ke is able to make some observations about his son's play.
"It's fascinating," the father notes at one point. "I direct humans. He directs robots."
But as production goes on, the father's memory struggles grow more severe.
"Nothing I can do. No matter how much I want to fix it. No matter how frustrated," Ma Ke laments. "The machine is broken. It's gone. What can I do?"
"I feel like watching Maleonn facing his parents' aging, it's something that all of us relate to in a very, very fundamental level," Chiang comments. "That's why we actually felt such a responsibility to tell this story right... [Maleonn] had this idea of sort of dedicating this beautiful story of father and son and memory to the world and we really see our film as an extension of that intention."
During the course of production, Maleonn got married to his artistic collaborator, Tianyi Huang, and they had a baby girl together. In the film, Maleonn's father expresses joy each time he sees his granddaughter; every time marks a fresh introduction--he does not realize he has met her before.
"Every time [I see] my father I am sometimes afraid he will forget me. But no, he knows me," Maleonn shares. "He knows my mother and me. My sister, sometimes. And she [my wife], no. My baby, no, never."
Before Ma Ke's dementia progressed, he was able to tell his son what he thought of the finished play.
"I asked my father, 'Do you like it?'" Maleonn tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "My father said, 'I love it.' That's very important moment for me. I cried."
Our Time Machine held its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, winning the award for Best Cinematography in a Documentary Feature. The film went on to screen at HotDocs in Toronto and at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize for International Documentary (an award shared with For Sama). It will screen at additional film festivals in the future. Distribution plans have yet to be announced.
Watching Our Time Machine is an emotional experience for many viewers. That includes the film's co-director.
"When I watch the film I still cry," Chiang reveals. "Even last week when I was watching the final projected film I just couldn't help myself, I just started tearing up. I am so moved always. And we're not taking credit for that. We feel like that's actually what these guys [Maleonn and team] were able to achieve that is just so moving."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.