Battle of Memories [Ji yi da shi] (2017)

I first encountered Battle of Memories‘ director, Leste Chen, in his complex and tricky thriller, The Great Hypnotist, which, while not a great film, was twisty enough to be entertaining.  Apparently, he is better known for his comedies, but that hasn’t stopped him  from venturing into the darker and more sinister world of the psychological thriller.

This one been described as a follow up to The Great Hypnotist:  not a sequel, but a film that explores much of the same thematic material.  Once again, we are dealing with memories and motivations, childhood traumas and hidden secrets.  But this one takes a very different turn and becomes a science fiction film, somewhat in the same vein as The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Jiang Feng, a famous novelist (played by comic actor Bo Huang, who appeared in Chen’s earlier “Lost in…” comedies) has decided to have his memories of his life with his wife erased.  He’ll still remember the basic outline of those events, but his emotions will be gone.  But she refuses to sign their divorce papers unless he has those memories restored.

It will take three days for them to return fully, but if he has them erased again, they’ll be lost forever.

However, something has gone very wrong, and the memories that slowly start coming to him are not his.  He has three days to recover his lost memories before the new ones become permanent, but it is worse than that:

He “remembers” murdering a woman.

This is a beautiful film:  While the densely detailed steampunk-ish memory machine, in a large, auditorium-style “operating theater” is perhaps the most memorable visual, even the everyday scenes in the film stand out, thanks to the often moody cinematography.  I also find the choice to populate this world with classic cars – like the elegant Citroen DS driven by the Police – intriguing, as it gives the film a nice retro-futuristic feel.  While Gattaca did something similar, the old cars here are far more familiar, as if they were reproductions rather than new cars in a classic style.

I like the way Chen handles the memories which are mostly in a harsh, grainy black and white (with a sudden flash of color for the fish that floats in the air).  There is a beautifully surreal moment later in the film when Feng’s perspective on those dreams changes.  There’s a hint of something similar in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but it gets far more developed here (although I wouldn’t have minded if he’d extended the sequence a bit and perhaps worked a few more variations on the theme).

As with any mystery thriller, the key question is always how well the solution to the puzzle works.  I have to confess that the last minute twist caught me by surprise, after I thought I’d figured it out what was going on.  This is always welcome, particularly if the clues we’ve seen so far seem to fit.  In fact, there are two major twists that change our perspective on what we’ve seen in the killer’s memories (and a third which proves to be a red herring), thanks to their subjective nature (something emphasized by the fact that we always see Bo Huang in the killer’s place).

I also find the middle-aged and rather hang dog-looking Huang an interesting choice for the lead:  in the terrible Hollywood remake, the part would probably be played by Tom Cruise, Ben Affleck or Matt Damon, or some other equally hunky star.  It makes me think of those Seventies thrillers with stars like Walter Matthau or Gene Hackman.  His performance seems quite solid in the role, although the changes that the implanted memories seem to be causing in his personality are perhaps a little undeveloped, as they seem to come on quickly, and we aren’t given too much insight into his personality beforehand:  however, the film never really answers how much of that change is merely the result of the looming deadline and his desire to get his own memories back.

One might also have liked to have seen more science fictional elements beyond the memory erasure clinic, but as the setting is only a few years in the future (2025) one wouldn’t expect too many major changes.  Otherwise, this is an entirely admirable little thriller, particularly for those who love Asian films (and aren’t frightened away by subtitles).  It which uses its limited SF elements beautifully, telling a solid story which depends on those elements – and does so with visual flair.  I’ll admit I’m looking forward to seeing any further psychological thrillers Chen decides to make.

He’s certainly off to a good start with his first two.


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