BATTLE OF MEMORIES (2017) review

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Set in the near future and in a fictional country called T Nation (the ‘T’ probably stands for Thailand, where the film was shot), Leste Chen’s Battle of Memories imagines that a technology has been developed that allows people to have select memories removed from their brain (à la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and stored safely in places called Master of Memory Centers. Successful novelist Jiang Feng (Huang Bo) goes to the only center in Asia that can perform this procedure: he is divorcing his wife Zhang Daichen (Xu Jinglei) and wants to get rid of the memories of how they fell in love. But when his wife tells him she won’t sign the divorce papers unless he has these memories restored, he goes back to have the procedure reversed (he will then only have 72 hours to have them deleted again, this time inevitably forever). But Jiang Feng quickly realizes the memories that have been restored in his brain, are someone else’s. Someone who seems to have killed two women, both of whom he seemed to love dearly. Haunted by these foreign memories, Jiang discerns that they are connected to a recent murder case, and he shares his uncommon and still muddled knowledge of the killer’s psyche with the police detective on the case, Shen Hanqiang (Duan Yihong). But if he has the killer’s memories, then does the killer have his?

It would be a true platitude to say that Battle of Memories requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief, as most high-concept thrillers do – it is their very nature. But whether one accepts or not to suspend disbelief often depends on how well set the stage is, and on how much poignancy is brought across. And Leste Chen’s film delivers on both counts. Its visualization of a near future is a sober delight, palpable in paradoxical details (the use of old cars, the absence of cellphones) rather than in obvious green-screen backdrops, chrome interiors and orgies of holograms. Even the technology that allows for the memory-removal procedure is a gorgeously ornate, almost steampunk machine that looks more Nikola Tesla than Steve Jobs. Art directors Luo Shunfu and Fang Shengxiang also favor old-style marble-and-wood interiors, sometimes contrasted with lean glass structures (like the police station cell in which Jiang Feng spends a lot of the film), and their superb work gives the film an unforced but highly-efficient otherworldly feel, especially as complemented by Charlie Lam’s ominous use of chiaroscuro.

Peng Ren is one of China’s most promising writers (he has worked mostly for Leste Chen so far), and he has crafted a superbly enjoyable puzzle, full of moving parts and red herrings, completed in layers and through epiphanic flashbacks to which Chen gives a hauntingly melancholy quality, through a stark use of black and white, a clever choice of locations (a old-fashioned greenhouse in a field particularly sticks in mind), and an unflinching look at the brutal yet mundane tragedy of domestic violence, not to mention a highly-effective use of Edward Elgar’s Concerto in E-minor. The countdown angle (that 72 hours deadline) is not overplayed, so that the film never feels the need to launch into breathless chases, preferring growing desperation and impending doom over escalating destruction. It does stretch good will a bit at times (for instance when Jiang Feng is asked to remember – and remembers! – what number is dialed by someone on a telephone, one floor down from him, in his imported memory) and experience a mild drop in tension in its penultimate reel, but overall this is a first-rate thriller.

Heading the cast, Huang Bo very effectively sheds all goofiness and confirms, after Peter Chan’s Dearest, that he could forsake comedy entirely and still remain one of China’s top stars (but that’s not to say we want him to forsake comedy): in turns pathetic, moving and sinister, he never becomes blandly heroic, and deftly plays two roles (as the killer’s memories are now his, he appears as the killer, in the flashback/memories). He bounces superbly off the low-key charisma of Duan Yihong, who in turn has a fun relationship to his partner played by Liang Jieli, that adds a bit of levity to a mostly doom-ladden story. Xu Jinglei has less to do but her chemistry with Huang Bo is a key component of the film, while Yang Zishan has limited screen time, until she is made to factor into the plot in a way that is not entirely effective. But though Battle of Memories stumbles once or twice along the way, it remains a rare instance of excellence in Chinese science-fiction cinema.

Long Story Short: Leste Chen’s Battle of Memories is a superbly realized, visually gorgeous high concept thriller that is not without plot holes and the occasional drop in tension, but remains compelling thanks to a haunting sense of atmosphere. ****

 

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