Battle of Memories
China, 2017, colour/b&w, 2.35:1, 112 mins.
Director: Chen Zhengdao 陈正道 [Leste Chen].
Futuristic psychothriller is sunk by a wilful, poorly written script and utilitarian direction.
T Country, the near future. A teenage girl, Li Xiaoyun (Du Hanmeng), counts to 100 in a darkened house and then calls the police; on the floor are the bodies of her dead mother and unconscious father. In another part of the city, well-known novelist Jiang Feng (Huang Bo) goes to Asia’s only Master of Memory Centre 记忆大师医疗中心 to have some selected items deleted from his memories and securely stored. However, his wife, onetime writer Zhang Daichen (Xu Jinglei), who is in the process of divorcing him, tells him she won’t sign the papers unless he has the memories restored. After having that done, the MMC tells him that if he wants the memories deleted a second time it has to be done within the next 72 hours; and if so, it will be forever. Over the next three days, as his memories start to return, he recalls fragmented images of helping a female friend, Li Huilan (Wang Zhen’er), hide from her abusive husband Li Hang. When Jiang Feng complains to the MMC, its head questions what kind of memories he wanted deleted. Was he, for instance, a murderer? Jiang Feng visits the police who, after being alerted by Li Xiaoyun’s phone call, have been handling the case of her mother Li Huilan’s death with the help of local A&E doctor Chen Shanshan (Yang Zishan). Li Hang has already been arrested. Jiang Feng tells them about his memory flashes, one of which is seeing a mystery women (Xu Weining) drowned in a bath. He says he’s worried the murderer may be himself. Detective Shen Hanqiang (Duan Yihong) and his deputy Lei (Liang Jieli) think Jiang Feng is just a famous writer looking for publicity, but they detain him overnight, as Jiang Feng now says there were two murders, not one. He’s put in a police cell with a seasoned criminal, Gu Haibo. Jiang Feng next has a memory flash of saving Li Huilan from being beaten by her husband; however, when he suggests they run away together, she insults him and he ends up killing her and framing the husband. Jiang Feng then starts to worry that, if he has accidentally received the real killer’s memories, then maybe the killer has his – which puts him and his wife in danger.
Thirty-six-year-old Chen Zhengdao 陈正道 [Leste Chen], the only Taiwan director of his generation to be pursuing a Mainland-based career, continues the bumpy ride with his seventh feature, Battle of Memories 记忆大师, a futuristic mystery-thriller that ranks with his downs (Say Yes! 101次求婚, 2013; The Great Hypnotist 催眠大师, 2014) rather than ups (Love on Credit 幸福额度, 2011; Miss Granny 重返20岁, 2015). Working again with Mainland writer Ren Peng 任鹏, the film is a companion piece to Hypnotist – the Chinese title “Master of Memory” directly evoking the earlier film’s “Master of Hypnosis” – but set on a more elaborate stage. Despite that, it hinges on a central relationship between two people (a police detective and a famous writer) that’s similar to that of the hypnotherapist and patient in Hypnotist, and relies on an onion-like structure of dreams within dreams to maintain the mystery. Despite its flaws, Hypnotist did have some moments; Memories, alas, has almost none, partly thanks to a screenplay that is wilfully confusing rather than tension/mystery building, doesn’t make sense on any level, and at times is just ineptly structured.
Based in the near future – and for some reason set in a fictional country called “T” T国 – the film starts off in sci-fi mode, with spare, futuristic architecture and semi-steampunk gizmos as soon-to-be-divorced writer Jiang Feng (goofy Huang Bo 黄渤, in a serious role) visits a centre to have some selected memories removed and stored. It’s never stated which memories these are – maybe those of his wife? – but as soon as he gets home she says she won’t sign the paperwork unless he has the memories restored. Back at the centre, Jiang Feng is told the memories will take 72 hours to fully return, and during that time he can always choose to have them deleted a second time (but forever). The problem is that he’s getting fragmented memory flashes of a female friend’s recent murder that may implicate him in the deed. So he goes to the police who are investigating the murder, tells them all this, and the chief detective (Duan Yihong 段奕宏) detains him a cell for a while, despite not fully believing his story.
Within half-an-hour the film has mutated from a futuristic, high-tech thriller into an elaborate whodunit set in a police station that looks at least 50 years old with its old-style New York precinct-like architecture. Put in a holding cell that’s an art director’s folly, alongside a seasoned criminal whose only point is to facilitate an attempted escape, Jiang Feng is subject to more confusing memory flashes as the film morphs again – into a police procedural with a Big Twist. At each stage, the script punches above its weight: the first half-hour is a mess in exposition and conveying basic information to the viewer; the second half-hour finally gets to the main plot point (that Jiang Feng may have accidentally inherited the memories of a killer), and the remainder, after leading the audience up an obvious garden path, then springs a twist that makes no sense at all.
In a film that’s about the loss of one’s past, and the fragility of memories, it’s vital to have a well-structured screenplay that guides viewers instead of surrounding them with confusion. Not only is Battle of Memories amateurishly structured – for example, Jiang Feng’s wife, a sidelined figure for most of the movie, is suddenly overloaded with backstory in the final stages – but also the dialogue is utilitarian and Chen’s direction likewise, with no undertow of suspense. The sloppiness in basic procedural detail (interviewing a teenage suspect in the middle of a school library?!) undermines believability at every stage. It’s difficult to know how much blame to pin on writer Ren: the son of veteran August First Film Studio director Ren Xudong 任旭东 (Tunnel Warfare 地道战, 1966) and director of the 3-D costume romance The Destiny 江南爱情故事 (2014), he has a variable track record so far, with his name attached to as many standouts (Miss Granny; One Night Only 天亮之前, 2016) as duds.
Performances are uneven. Huang, 42, miscast in Chen’s lame rom-com Say Yes!, is again miscast here as a famous writer, and isn’t helped by his character being given almost no background and landed in a very un-proactive role, kicked around by the script’s corkscrew plotting. The rumpled Duan, 43, who’s never given a bad performance and is entirely believable as a working detective (especially after his superb showing in crime drama The Dead End 烈日灼心, 2015), is also let down by the screenplay, which never gives him a sufficiently prominent role and later subjects his character to unlikely developments. As Jiang Feng’s wife, Xu Jinglei 徐静蕾 is largely wasted in a role that’s window-dressing until it’s too late, and her high-profile name only draws attention to the script’s imbalance. Younger actress Yang Zishan 杨子姗, whom Chen made a star with Miss Granny, is good in a role that develops out of nothing but is then tossed aside at the last minute.
Chen’s regular tech team turn in a product that’s generally professional but not especially inviting, with cold, chiaroscuro photography by Hong Kong’s Lin Zhijian 林志坚 [Charlie Lam], plus B&W in the memory flashes, and art direction by Luo Shunfu 罗顺福 and Shen Zhanzhi 沈展志 that distracts from rather than supports the drama. Music by Hong Kong’s Liang Qiaobai (Fleet of Time 勿勿那年, 2014) is either unatmospheric or unsuitable (a large chunk of Elgar’s Cello Concerto at the hour mark). The film was shot in Thailand and China, though the few exteriors could be anywhere.
Presented by Wanda Pictures (CN), Shanghai Hanna Pictures (CN). Produced by Beijing Golden Cicada Films (CN).
Script: Ren Peng, Chen Zhengdao [Leste Chen]. Photography: Lin Zhijian [Charlie Lam]. Editing: Yang Hongyu. Music: Liang Qiaobai. Art direction: Luo Shunfu, Shen Zhanzhi. Styling: Ye Zhuzhen. Sound: Zhao Nan, Yang Jiang. Action: Luo Yimin [Norman Law]. Visual effects: Wei Ming.
Cast: Huang Bo (Jiang Feng), Xu Jinglei (Zhang Daichen, Jiang Feng’s wife), Duan Yihong (Shen Hanqiang, detective), Yang Zishan (Chen Shanshan, doctor), Xu Weining [Tiffany Hsu] (mystery woman), Liang Jieli (Lei, detective), Wang Zhen’er (Li Huilan), Du Hanmeng (Li Xiaoyun, Li Huilan’s daughter).
Premiere: Beijing Film Festival (Closing Film), 23 Apr 2017.
Release: China, 28 Apr 2017.