NYAFF Review: ‘Battle of Memories’

Battle of Memories is messy, campy, melodramatic, a touch schlocky — and so, so much fun.

Famous and respected author Jiang Feng (Bo Huang) has been served divorce papers by his wife, Daichen (Jinglei Xu). In an effort to make the process easier, Feng elects for memory removal surgery. Or, more accurately, memory dissociation surgery. In the fiction, technology hasn’t advanced so far as to remove memories completely, but merely enough to remove the emotional connotations associated with the memories being operated upon (“You’re moved from participant to spectator,” Feng is told). (I’m no future doctor, but this seems like a way more advanced procedure than deleting memories altogether.) Once the surgery is over, you’re given a poker chip-like token that contains the removed memories, should you opt to have them replaced.

As he’s leaving the clinic, however, a disgruntled boyfriend is demanding that his girlfriend restore her memories of their relationship. He pulls a gun to let her know he’s serious, and eventually kills the girl and himself. In the confusion, Feng drops his token and fumbles to retrieve it.

When Daichen learns of the surgery, she demands that he get his memories restored; she won’t sign the divorce papers until he does. So, like that, Feng is back at the clinic. He’s warned that now he’s getting his memories restored, removing them again will mean they’re gone forever (another limitation of the technology). Slowly, Feng’s memories begin to come back to him, a process that takes a few days and only occurs during deep sleep (you might be noticing a pattern of fuzzily explained future tech acting as convenient plot contrivances — most of which come across as arbitrary and slave to Aristotelian story structure instead of internal logic). But, as the memories being to trickle back to him, Feng realizes something of a problem: the memories aren’t his. Instead, he’s getting flashes of an unknown woman hiding from her abusive husband and, even more troublingly, glimpses of brutal murders.

Realizing he’s gotten someone else’s memories, Feng goes back to the clinic, who aren’t of any help (for the sake of the plot more than anything else). Since he’s stuck with these memories, then, he goes to the police — the all-business-and-suspenders Detective Shen and comparatively bumbling Deputy Lei (who wear the same outfits over the course of the days the movie takes place) — to give them the information he hopes will help solve the crime. Cue the dizzying string of revelations, twists, and double-crosses.

If I seem a little dour of aspects of the plot and storytelling so far, well… You’d be right. Battle of Memories is full of unbelievable contrivances, unclear character motivations, and maybe one too many convenient coincidences. This should be the death knell for Battle of Memories. And yet…

I was in it to win it for the whole hour-forty five or so the film runs. Despite — or in spite — of its faults, I was invested and entertained. What’s more, I cared about the fates of these characters and the outcome of the story.

Sure, there are some twists you can see coming from a mile away (and to be fair, a few you can’t), and you might be left confused by some aspects of the plot. I can’t defend these deficiencies in the storytelling, but I can defend the way the story was told, which is enthusiastically.

What I admired most about the film was its guts. Director Leste Chen takes the premise and runs with it with such relish and gusto that it’s almost impossible for the obvious energy and passion not to be infectious. Occasionally this results in moments of overwrought melodrama: overcooked performances, goofily dramatic music cues, and so on. But all the aspects of the production — from the vaguely steampunk (and often striking) production design to the acting that sees the performers adhering to their given archetypes (in a good way, that is; the acting is, for the most part, very strong, particularly Yihong Duan as Detective Shen) — seem to be on the same page and in sync, brining a kinetic cohesiveness to the thing.

Battle of Memories is, at its heart, a suspense thriller. And it’s an effective, if flawed, one at that. But it also touches on some very dark themes not often explored outside of prestige dramas. The film contains many scenes of intense physical and emotional abuse, and explores (to varying degrees of success) the complicated dynamics of abusive relationships. As the story progresses, we see more and more of the killer’s relationships with the murder victims, and an unexpected hopelessness begins to seep in. And while there’s the requisite scenes of intense, gut-wrenching fighting, screaming, and beating (you know the kind of scene I’m talking about), Chen effectively portrays other forms of abuse — more sinister, subtler, and (eventually), deadly. The kind of abuse that might not seem like it at first, that comes around in the guise of (and maybe even genuinely the result of) true love. Even Feng is not immune. As he recalls more and more of the killer’s memories, he grows more and more violent, even towards his wife, in his crime-solving efforts. Whether this is due to the killer’s personality seeping in or a misguided effort at protection is up for debate.

Okay, I may be painting these aspects of the film as a little headier and subtler than they actually are. Battle of Memories certainly gets dark, but it never loses the in-your-face momentum and tends to approach its themes with a bludgeon instead of a scalpel. Which is maybe for the best. The parts of the movie that make it a good, B-level thriller make the heftier thematic elements stand out even more.

Is Battle of Memories a classic? No. But it’s fun. A lot of fun. And it’s a genuinely good movie with a lot of heart.

We screened the film at the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival.

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