Maleonn, also known as Ma Liang, has become one of China’s leading conceptual artists, producing stunningly imaginative works that span photography, video, drawing, installation, set design and puppetry. mechanical.
“Maleonn is at the same time”, describes him a gallery owner, “a sculptor of the senses, a visual poet and a painter of emotions”.
Maleonn’s gift can be attributed to his parents who are both artists – his mother a former actress and his father, Ma Ke, the former artistic director of the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theater. Father-son relationship takes center stage in poignant Oscar documentary Our time machine, directed by Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang.
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The film tells how Ma Ke made more than 80 theatrical productions during a brilliant career interrupted by the Chinese 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 not give me 100% on stage.”
Maleonn also felt intimidated as a child when he had to admit to his father that he wanted to become an artist instead of following in his father’s footsteps in the opera company.
“I feel my dad was very disappointed and he was quiet for quite a while,” Maleonn tells Deadline. “He said, ‘Maybe in the future you can do theater, set design for me.’ I said I will. It is a very important moment in my life, when my father gave me permission.
Decades have passed and the promise to work together has not been kept. Then Maleonn realized that his father, around this time in his 80s, was starting to show signs of dementia. The first indication came one day when they were at a swimming pool. As Maleonn remembers in the movie, he swam one lap and then his father asked him, “Maleonn, can you float on the water?”
“Of course, dad. You taught me that when I was a kid, ”Maleonn replied. Then he swam another lap and again his father asked, “Maleonn, can you float on the water?” Round after round, the same thing happened, a total of five times – the same question followed by the same answer.
“The story of the swimming pool was a very shocking moment for me,” recalls Maleonn. “I thought, the time has come. This is the last chance. I wrote a screenplay. I told myself I had to do something for my dad.
The production he developed consisted of 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 his father’s reminiscences as dementia encroached upon his faculties.
“I know he will lose all memory,” Maleonn recalls thinking. “I have to do some theatrical work for his memory… I think it’s a good ending and everyone needs a good ending.
From the start of the play, Ma Ke was able to give her son her opinion.
“It’s fascinating,” the father noted at one point. “I lead humans. He runs robots.
But over time, Ma Ke’s memory difficulties became more severe and her desperation intensified.
“There’s nothing I can do. No matter how badly I want to fix it. As frustrated as he is,” he laments in the movie. “The machine is broken. Here we go. What can I do?”
“I want to watch Maleonn deal with the aging of his parents, it’s something that we all relate to on a very, very basic level,” Chiang observes. “This is why I was so moved and this is why we felt such a responsibility to tell this story properly. We see this film as an extension of what he did with the play. His goal was to realize this idea of dedicating to the world this beautiful story of father and son and of memory.
Before Ma Ke’s dementia progressed too far, he was able to tell his son what he thought of the finished play.
“I asked my dad, ‘Do you like it? He told Deadline. “My dad said, ‘I love this.’ It is 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. He has won several awards, including Best Cinematography at Tribeca, as well as a Gotham Award nomination and the Grand Jury Award at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
Maleonn’s work is one of a kind, but wide comparisons can be made with cinematic masters like Guillermo del Toro, Terry Gilliam, and Tim Burton.
“I think it’s fun. It’s innocent, but it’s fantastic, magical. It’s mischievous, I guess it’s good people. And deep, ”says Chiang. He adds observations on Maleonn’s work which also apply to Our time machine himself.
“It touches you in a really surprising way. You see it and you don’t think there’s any political content or some kind of more important content … But you look closer and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, that says something really, really. big and important and it’s about mankind. “”