Maleonn, also known as Ma Liang, has become one of China’s leading conceptual artists, producing works of stunning imagination that span photography, video, drawing, installations, set design and mechanical puppetry.
“Maleonn is at once,” a gallerist describes him, “a sculptor of the senses, a visual poet and a painter of emotions.”
Maleonn’s gift can be traced to his parents who are both artistic people—his mother a former actress and his father, Ma Ke, the former artistic director of the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theater. The relationship between father and son takes center stage in the poignant Oscar-contending documentary Our Time Machine, directed by Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang.
The film recounts how Ma Ke directed over 80 theatrical productions during a distinguished career that was interrupted by China’s Cultural Revolution. He was known as an intimidating presence behind the scenes.
“I was the scariest director at the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theater,” Ma Ke says in Our Time Machine, with a hint of pride. “When we rehearsed, no one dared to not give me 100 percent on stage.”
Maleonn felt intimated, too, as a kid when he had to admit to his father he wanted to become an artist instead of following his dad’s footsteps into the opera company.
“I feel my father was very disappointed and he was silent for quite a time,” Maleonn tells Deadline. “He said, ‘Maybe in the future you can do some drama, some stage design for me.’ I said I will. That’s a very important moment in my life, when my father gave me permission.”
Decades passed and the promise of collaborating together remained unfulfilled. Then Maleonn became aware that his father, by this time in his 80s, was beginning to show signs of dementia. The first indication came one day when they were at a swimming pool. As Maleonn remembers in the film, he swam a lap and afterwards his father asked him, “Maleonn, can you float on water?”
“Sure, dad. You taught me this when I was a kid,” Maleonn replied. Then he swam another lap and once again his father asked, “Maleonn, can you float on water?” Lap after lap the same thing occurred, a total of five times—the same question followed by the same answer.
“The swimming pool story was a very shocking moment for me,” Maleonn recalls. “I thought, the time is coming. It’s the last chance. I wrote a script. I told myself I should do something for my father.”
The stage production he developed involved making life-size mechanical puppets to tell the story of a son who builds a time machine for his father, giving them the chance to revisit important moments in their lives. Maleonn’s hope was to preserve reminiscences for his father as dementia encroached on his faculties.
“I know he will lose all memory,” Maleonn remembers thinking. “I must do some drama work for his memory…I think it’s a good ending and everybody needs a good ending.”
Early on as the play came together, Ma Ke was able to give feedback to his son.
“It’s fascinating,” the father noted at one point. “I direct humans. He directs robots.”
But as time wore on, Ma Ke’s memory struggles grew more severe and his despair mounted.
“Nothing I can do. No matter how much I want to fix it. No matter how frustrated,” he laments in the film. “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 on a very, very fundamental level,” Chiang observes. “That’s why I was so moved by it and that’s why we actually felt such a responsibility to tell this story right. We think of this film as an extension of what he did with the play. He had a goal to achieve this idea of dedicating this beautiful story of father and son and memory to the world.”
Before Ma Ke’s dementia had progressed too far, he was able to tell his son what he thought of the finished play.
“I asked my father, ‘Do you like it?’” he tells Deadline. “My father said, ‘I love it.’ That’s a very important moment for me. I cried.”
Our Time Machine premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019 and debuted as part of the PBS series POV last September. It has earned multiple prizes, including Best Cinematography at Tribeca, as well as a Gotham Awards nomination and the Grand Jury award at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
Maleonn’s work is one of a kind, but broad comparisons can be made to cinematic masters like Guillermo del Toro, Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton.
“I think it’s playful. It’s innocent, but it’s fantastical, magical. It’s mischievous, I guess that’s the right world. And profound,” Chiang affirms. He adds observations about Maleonn’s work that apply equally to Our Time Machine itself.
“It 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…But you look closer and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, it’s saying something really, really big and important and it’s about humanity.’”