Thursday, 11 May 2017

Movie Review: Battle Of Memories (2017)



Have you ever had an experience that you wish never happened? Of course you have; we all have. Would you want to erase it completely from your mind? That question’s a little trickier to answer. Must be why memory manipulation has been a science-fiction trope for as long as it has, dealing with the many implications and philosophical musings attached to it. Now, as I’ve made mention on this blog before, I see memories and the long-lasting effects they have on personalities to be a fairly inherent thing; I’ve been through some rather awful events in my own life, and yet I wouldn’t dare touch any of it in my own mind because, for better or for worse, they helped make me who I am today. Given how part of that includes my attitudes towards media and the real world, feel free to question whether or not that’s such a good thing. For right now, though, we have another psychological thriller to get through; hopefully, my natural affinity for the genre will make this at least worth watching. This is Battle Of Memories.

The plot: In the near-future, there exists a service that allows people to erase memories from their heads. In the wake of a potentially painful divorce, novelist Jiang (Bo Huang) goes through the procedure to erase his past with his ex-wife (Xu Jinglei). However, when he decides that he wants his memories back, he finds out that he was given back more than he bargained for: He now has the memories of a serial killer in his brain. As the memories become clearer and clearer, he tries to get the attention of detective Shen (Yihong Duan) in order to solve the murders that he knows the details of all too well.

The cast is really damn strong, although apologies for not being able to credit everyone as per usual as I can’t seem to find a full cast list online for some reason. Bo Huang was an excellent choice for the lead, being able to perform as Jiang himself very well along with his avatar within Jiang’s new memories; things only get better the further Jiang descends into potential madness. Xu Jinglei is somewhat underutilized, especially since her relationship with Jiang ends up becoming a major deal near the end, but she does well enough in the role. Yihong Duan is very good as the detective, showing the sort of competence I’m genuinely not used to seeing in these sorts of stories. His conversations with Bo Huang also make for some of the film’s surprisingly smarter moments, which both deliver admirably. The detective’s colleague manages to sidestep the usual sidekick oafishness that goes into typical cop stories and comes across as able if slightly less experienced. Zishan Yang as the police doctor fills in her role quite nicely, especially with how much her character gets thrown around during the headier plot revelations. I’d also feel remiss if I didn’t bring up Jiang’s cellmate (again, couldn’t find the actor’s name so apologies for that), who may be jarring in how different he is compared to everyone else in the cast but he’s quite enjoyable to watch nonetheless.

Anyone who has seen Total Recall (either of them, although why you would want to watch the more recent one is beyond me) will be familiar with the idea of using technology to mess around with a person’s memory. Thankfully, this film is dissimilar enough from previously trodden ground like Recall as well as Dark City to make it stand out. For a start, the conceit is presented in a rather straight-forward way while being a touch more complex than it would appear on the surface, being more about memory detachment rather than outright deletion. For another, it becomes the one impossible aspect of the film while the rest plays out like what you would expect from a murder mystery story; this is how sci-fi realism should look. And for a third, it handles the prospect of memory in relation to personal identity quite well in that it keeps things relatively vague. As we see Jiang grow more erratic as the tension rises, it doesn’t outright admit if it’s because of the influence his new memories are having on him or not. I’ve talked about the connection between memories and personalities before on this blog, but I haven’t really gotten into how that isn’t the whole picture. Connected in its own way to the age-old nature vs. nurture debate, this film basically represents memory as being part of what shapes a person, rather than having the memories just create a brand-new person. Nice touch.

As I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for a good psychological thriller and, thankfully, I don’t have to go on the defensive with this one because it is legitimately good. Not only that, this is an incredibly dark work, dealing heavily in matters like domestic violence, Stockholm syndrome and even the idea of mercy killings. I’m not touching that last one with a ten-foot idiom but, considering the severity of not only the subject matter but also the effects of it on-screen, this film doesn’t venture into exploitative territory at any point. What’s more, it ends up really setting one’s teeth on edge when coupled with Jiang’s spectatorial role in the flashback scenes, with an unsettling black-and-white filter coupled with some very trippy imagery to create some decent thrills. The pacing is also rather well done as the tension steadily rises and, as more characters get put into the firing line, it does superbly at raising those heartrates. However, with that said, I should probably have prefaced this with a trigger warning, although not necessarily for the domestic violence scenes. Yeah, those are hard to sit through but I’m referring to something else that might be a bit too much for some viewers. Put simply, if you think that seeing someone swallow a razorblade might be too much for you, proceed with caution on this one.

As is to be expected for a one-two punch of a psychological thriller and a murder mystery, there are a lot of twists and turns within the story. Now, I’ve voiced a certain disdain in the past for films that seems to be too fixated on throwing off the audience rather than maintaining coherency and, to be honest, this film ends up toeing that line more often than not. It sets up certain plot beats rather well, even managing to tantalize some possibilities for the plot like Jiang’s new memories possibly coming from more than a single person. After sitting through films like Criminal, this amount of effort on exploring its core idea is a pleasant reprieve from the laziness I’ve been seeing far too often. However, once we get to the final reel where the tension reaches its peak, the story starts to lose its focus. I don’t know how they managed it but they somehow made the bigger twists feel both properly set-up and thrown in for the sake of disorientation at the same time. However, while not always coherent, it at least manages to maintain a decent tension level till the very end, even if it ultimately results in a bit of a whiplash epilogue that doesn’t feel right tonally next to the frankly resonant conclusion. Still, this is better than the bulk of twist-heavy thrillers I’ve covered on here before when it comes to actually delivering thrills through its twists so, intelligible or not, I still see it as effective.

All in all, it may be biting off a bit more than it can chew with its narrative, but that doesn’t stop it from being a very suspenseful piece of cinema. The acting is solid, the writing merges its sci-fi and crime thriller elements extremely well, its depiction of rather unsettling scenarios is done about as tastefully as it is possible to be when dealing with issues of domestic violence and when it comes to depicting notions of memory, it manages to outperform even some of the better films I’ve discussed on here. It’s better than Noor, as the tonal consistency here made for a more gripping viewing experience, even if it doesn’t contain anything as singularly poignant as that film’s “You’re Killing Me” scene. However, even though this might technically be a better film, Personal Shopper’s deeper dive into its own themes and subtext gave me a bit more to chew on. As someone with a compulsive need to analyse things, that film just scratched that itch a bit better.

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