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Battle of Memories
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by Jay Seaver

"Memorable, though not always in the right way."
3 stars

For all that box office reports will often lead off with how China has made a sci-fi movie that didn't do that well in America something of a hit, they don't export seem to export many. There are plenty of potential explanations for why China makes relatively fewer and they don't tend to cross the Pacific, and that's before you get to how, if "Battle of Memories" is typical, they're not great; the filmmakers had a neat hook to set up a futuristic murder mystery, but are often so set on twists, turns, and misdirection that a story that makes sense never emerges, and they can't dazzle their way past that.

The time is the near future; the place is "Nation T", the only place in Asia where "Masters of Memory" has a location. Famed writer Jiang Feng (Huang Bo) is there to have the detailed memories of his failed marriage removed - he won't completely forget wife Zhang Daichen (Xu Jinglei), but those experiences will be more like a book he read some time ago than his own memories. This seems to be what's happening with the couple whose confrontation ends in a murder-suicide, during which time the memory unit containing Jiang's memories is damaged. Once he gets back home, though, Daichen refuses to sign the divorce papers while he's in this condition, and while the memories can be restored for 72 hours, there are consequences to that, as the memories will either be present or gone for good. There's also a bigger problem - the memories re-implanted are not his own, but those of the murderer of battered wife Li Huilan (Wang Zhen'er). Of course, when he goes to the police, Detective Shen Hanqiang (Duan Yihong) and Lei Zi (Liang Jieli) aren't exactly sure what to do with a guy who claims to remember a murder he didn't commit, especially since his subjective memory offers few clues as to the real killer and some of what he says contradicts what medical examiner - and friend of the victim Chen Shanshan (Yang Zishan) - discovered in her autopsy.

When making Minority Report, Steven Spielberg hired Scott Frank - who writes great thrillers and crime but felt out of his element doing science fiction - and told him to come up with the best mystery he could, and he'd handle the futuristic material. If there was a similar dynamic between director "Leste" Chen Zhengdao and his co-writer Ryan Ren here, it's somewhat less successful. The murder of Li Huilan initially doesn't seem to offer the sort of complexities that require extraordinary measures to solve it, and when following them up does reveal a more complicated story, that doesn't necessarily make it more interesting, especially since the film opens with a scene that points so firmly in one unorthodox direction that the way Leste dances around it is frustrating. The direction things ultimately go seems random, especially compared to some of the other options presented earlier.

The story completely skirts the issue of how, if Jiang has the killer's memories of the crime, then the killer maybe doesn't - the rules are kind of vague at times - which could have added both a unique element to the cat-and-mouse game and some intriguing moral ambiguity (although Chinese crime movies aren't exactly hotbeds of the latter). It's a bit of a shame, because Chen and his mostly Thai crew do a nice job of making something that feels like a different near future - though Bangkok is not exactly an unfamiliar sight on-screen, the locations chosen tend to have a colonial feel that and a slate color palette (matching the sky) that gives the place a slightly alien, futuristic feel by dint of not being modern but still feeling useful. The design of the memory extractor is a well-chosen blend of steampunk and sleek that works better than it has any right to. It's a genuinely neat job of pulling off the "close enough to be familiar, different enough for the fantastic" setting.

It lets Huang Bo pull off something nifty as the film goes on, highlighting the idea that having the memories of a killer in his head, deliberately remembering and re-experiencing the crime and the feelings that motivated it, is not going to have a good effect on a person. It's a nice sharpening of a character that, perhaps deliberately, had something missing for much of the movie, often hampering Xu Jinglei's work in trying to build some sort of chemistry with him as Daichen (the script's struggling with just how concerned Feng should be over Daichen doesn't help). Xu often plays better off Yang Zishan; the two actors playing smart, impressive women have an easier time establishing common ground than any of the guys.

Chen's got the raw materials for a decent sci-fi mystery here, and he's got enough skill with both the visuals and actors that I'd like to see him continue working in the genre. Unfortunately for "Battle of Memories", that's not enough to save a script that is pretty dull most of the time, or undo a couple decisions that got the wrong kind of laughter at the climax. It's a good enough stab at the genre to be interesting, but not quite one to recommend.

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originally posted: 05/10/17 08:50:04
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.

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  27-Apr-2017 (MA)

Directed by
  Leste Chen

Written by
  Leste Chen
  Ryan Ren

  Bo Huang
  Yihong Duan
  Jinglei Xu
  Zishan Yang

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