It is the near future. Jiang Feng (Huang Bo) is a resentful author in the middle of a divorce. In a fit of pique he visits the Master of Memory centre to have the memory of his marriage electronically extracted from his mind. On his return home his wife Daichen (Xu Jinglei) refuses to sign the divorce agreement until he goes back and has the memories re-instated. There is an error during the process, however, and Feng finds himself with the memories of another person – a stranger who appears to have murdered two people.
China is not a country well known for science fiction cinema, so when a near-future technological thriller drops into theatres it seems like something to which one should pay attention. Battle of Memories is a new film from Taiwanese director Leste Chen, who found considerable success back in 2014 with his thriller The Great Hypnotist. It is ultimately a deeply frustrating film: one which throws a series of clever and engaging ideas into the air, plays around with some great visual representations of dream states and memories, and then completely fails to make anything of worth out of it all. Ardent fans of the key actors or those keen to see more non-English language science fiction might find some satisfaction from viewing it, but anybody else can likely spend their money more effectively on something else.
There is something rather akin to Philip K. Dick in the way that Feng gains these new murderous memories, and gradually begins to be psychologically affected by them. Huang Bo plays it well, balancing a fine line between slowly pushing his character into darker and more disturbed territory and maintaining the sympathy of the audience. Xu Jinglei is also effective as his wife Daichen, who is on the verge of divorce after the way he has neglected her yet remains faithful to him as the story unfolds.
Commendably Feng’s first instinct is to go to the police and report the crimes, however with only his word as proof he does not get particularly far. His growing hostility sees him arrested for assault, and it is only while in custody that he persuades two homicide detectives that his claims are genuine. Junior officer Lei – who for the time being must go uncredited as nowhere on the internet will tell me who the actor is – is upbeat and likeable, and it is through him that the film gains whatever scant moments of levity it has. As senior officer Shen, Duan Yihong feels like a walking bundle of stereotypes. To an extent it is the fault of the screenplay, but Duan still ignores any possibilities to develop a more distinctive and believable character.
The film’s middle section is its most interesting, as Feng’s new memories begin to take hold upon his dreams. They initially form as a series of black and white flashbacks, but as he becomes more conscious of his surroundings the visual imagery begins to grow increasingly bizarre. One sequence set inside a bathroom becomes a mini-masterpiece of Inception-style surreality. There is a sort of bleak homogeneity to the film, but it is an aesthetic that suits its grim, thought-provoking set-up very well. It is this mid-section that also raises a terrifying prospect: if Feng has the memories of the killer, then the killer may correspondingly have Feng’s memories of his marriage – and Daichen may be a target.
Sadly the film completely fails to pull all of these threads together. When push comes to shove Battle of Memories collapses into a morass of blindingly stupid coincidences and unbelievable plot twists. Character motivations are twisted to the convenience of the story. The climactic revelation of the killer’s identity is obvious, but only in that way where the viewer assumes the most banal story development they can and work from there. The final half hour effectively insults everything that made the preceding 90 minutes so interesting. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. So much potential is pointlessly undone.
This review was first published on FilmInk.