Combustible Celluloid
With: Maleonn, Ma Ke, Ma Duo, Tianyi Huang
Written by: S. Leo Chiang, Bo Li
Directed by: S. Leo Chiang, Yang Sun
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Chinese, with English subtitles
Running Time: 81
Date: 09/11/2020

Our Time Machine (2020)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Clock Puppets

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The documentary Our Time Machine opens with a quote from H.G. Wells about how memories can take us back in time, and dreams can carry us forward. The movie continues with these beautiful sentiments in mind, and comes out as a moving, beautiful work.

It's available as part of the virtual cinema program at the Roxie Theater, and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center.

The Shanghai-based artist known as Maleonn is the son of a legendary Peking Opera director, Ma Ke, who — as he keeps stating — directed over 80 plays in his time. But now he has a form of dementia and is quickly losing his memory.

Maleonn decides that he needs to pay tribute to his father before time runs out. He writes a play about a son traveling back in time to rescue his father's fading memories, and begins building an elaborate series of life-size robot puppets, and even an airplane with huge, flapping wings, to stage it.

The play quickly becomes more expensive than anticipated, and pre-production goes on for years past the originally planned six months.

Co-directors S. Leo Chiang and Yang Sun cut smoothly back and forth between the awe-inspiring behind-the-scenes views of the play, with black-clad actors practicing the subtle, graceful movements of the puppets, and Ma Ke's downward spiral, unable to remember even what the year is.

Each section beautifully compliments the other, the puppets enhancing a sense of physical being, and the family relationships heightening the emotional. The movie is further balanced by the presence of two incredible women, Ma Ke's longtime wife Ma Duo, and Maleonn's co-director on the play, Tianyi Huang.

At only 80 minutes, Our Time Machine certainly could have gone on longer to reveal the eventual outcome of the play, but happily, it finds a perfect way to wrap up, touching on tragedy, love, and hope.

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