Film and TV

Acclaimed Chinese Film Our Time Machine Is Sad Because It's True

Our Time Machine follows a Chinese artist who writes a play about his father's Alzheimer's disease.
Our Time Machine follows a Chinese artist who writes a play about his father's Alzheimer's disease. Maleonn Studio

If you’ve spent much time at all caring for an elderly parent, people will bring you books about how to look after old people. They’ll want to introduce you to their friend who’s also taking care of his mom. They’ll recommend movies about middle-aged people who are dealing with Dad’s dementia.

I try to be gracious. But I don’t read the books about how to care for my demented mother; I’ve been doing it for 15 years and I think I’ve got it figured out. It isn’t nice of me to say so, I suppose, but I don’t want to meet your friend who’s also a caregiver — for the same reason that, when I’m not changing Mom’s diapers or fighting with her insurance company, I don’t want to watch movies about other people who are doing the same: Because I want to be doing something — anything! — else.

I made an exception when a film publicist I know sent me a screener of Our Time Machine, the excellent new documentary by S. Leo Chiang and Yang Sun. He included a note promising that this wasn’t so much about caring for an elderly parent with Alzheimer’s, that it was more about the artwork of Chinese conceptual artist Ma Liang, whose art world name is Maleonn.

The publicist was mistaken. Yes, the movie follows Maleonn as he creates Papa’s Time Machine, a new play about his father’s Alzheimer’s disease. We watch him struggle to finance the project and see him build the life-sized puppets that will tell his story about a man who invents a magic plaid chair that will let him travel back in time to save his father’s memory. The snippets of the play we get to see are the most entertaining, because the puppets are fascinating: They emote with big, glass eyes that blink with wonderment; their antennae bob atop faces burnished with gold; their fully articulated bodies (which appear to have been made from old dresser dummies) move like yours and mine.

But the filmmakers divide their time between the story of the play and the man who inspired it, and it’s the tale of Maleonn’s father’s mental decline that’s the focal point here.

click to enlarge Maleonn (right) with his father, Ma Ke (left). - MALEONN STUDIO
Maleonn (right) with his father, Ma Ke (left).
Maleonn Studio

Dad was the director of the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theater, and we meet him not long after his diagnosis. He’s cheerful enough, but anyone who’s been down this path knows what’s coming. Sure enough, pretty soon he’s failing his Mini Mental Exam at the neurologist’s office, and suddenly Maleonn’s time machine story about a boy who thinks he can get close to his father by one day doing a project with him is heartbreaking in a sad-because-it’s-true kind of way.

Maybe skipping those books and movies about other caregivers wasn’t a wise choice, because I took some comfort in watching Maleonn cope with his father’s illness. When Maleonn and his mother grill the old man about whether he remembers reading his son’s play, I was reminded of my early, impatient days as caregiver.

When Maleonn’s mother bitches that other people she knows have help from their family, I remembered the abandonment of my mother by my own family, who vanished when she began losing her mind to Alzheimer’s. And Maleonn’s whining that he doesn’t think he’ll finish his play because his father’s dementia has advanced, reminded me of my own early-days panic about learning to juggle work and caregiving duties.

“My father’s health is problematic,” he complains, striking a miserable pose, in case we don’t get the point. (Repeated closeups of Mr. Liang’s face, full of anguish and confusion, are a primer on misery.) If both Maleonn and perhaps the audience are tone-deaf to how uncaring and self-serving his complaints are, we do get to watch the artist evolve into someone who understands that losing his father is an inevitability. While we watch, the story of the play he wrote about his father — in which a boy realizes that each memory captured is another connection with his father — becomes reality.

Maybe I’m worn out from more than a dozen years of caregiving, but I enjoyed the Chiang-Sun film — which definitely is about a man caring for his parent with Alzheimer’s. I might even recommend it myself, one day.

Our Time Machine is being presented in Phoenix by No Festival Required. It plays as a streaming feature through Sunday, October 18. Cost is $12.
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela