Tuesday, June 27, 2017

NYAFF ’17: Battle of Memories

When it comes to memory, we’re like Goldilocks. We always want a little more or a little less. It’s never exactly right. The temptation to start fiddling around with how memories are processed, stored, and accessed in that strange device called the human mind has taken on Frankenstein-like implications in speculative fiction and psychological thrillers. When bestselling novelist Jiang Feng has a few select memories extracted, it similarly leads him down a rabbit-hole he won’t soon forget in Leste Chen’s Battle of Memories (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival.

Pained by his upcoming divorce from Zhang Daichen, Jiang goes in for the Spotless Mind treatment. However, for reasons that will be revealed later, she insists he have them reinstated, before she signs the papers. This is a process that can only be done twice, so the next memory removal will be permanent. In a colossal mix-up, the wrong memories are re-inserted into Jiang’s noggin. Suddenly, he is getting flashbacks to murders he never committed.

Due to the suspense-enhancing circumstances of the process, it will take seventy-two hours for the memories to fully reconstitute themselves. He is also emotionally detached from the dramatic events in question, watching them unfold in his memory like a spectator. Yet, the killer’s identity remains unknown, because Jiang has no context for knowing it a priori. Instead, he will have to deduce it from clues within the flashbacks. The detectives investigating the latest murder, grizzled Shen Hanqiang and his eager junior Lei Zi, mostly believe Jiang, but they are not as proactive as he would like protecting Zhang Daichen. Logically, he figures if he has the killer’s memories, it stands to reason the unknown psychopath must have his.

Memories is the second serious-as-a-heart-attack psychological thriller Chen has made featuring a star of China’s blockbuster “Lost in” slapstick comedies, following The Great Hypnotist, featuring Xu Zheng. In this case, it will be Bo Huang carrying the film quite well as the increasingly disoriented and disturbed Jiang. In fact, his sad hound dog face is rather perfect for Jiang. He always looks like he is confused and suffering from a massive migraine.

NYAFF honoree Duan Yihong is terrific as the flinty Det. Shen and newcomer Liang Jieli (a.k.a. Patricio Antonio Liang) shows real breakout potential as Lei Zi. However, the film’s real not-so-secret weapon is Yang Zishan (star of the monster hit So Young) as police doctor Chen Shanshan, who will keep viewers guessing as her backstory is revealed.

The mystery Leste Chen and screenwriter Peng Ren have devised is devilishly clever and the murder scene flashbacks are stylishly eerie, while scrupulously adhering to their own internal logic. However, the film can be a bit confusing in terms of segues and transitions. Too often, viewers have to piece together on-screen context to get their bearings. However, Charlie Lam’s cinematography (soft, noir De Palma-esque color for the waking scenes and stark black-and-white for the inserted memories) is always visually dramatic and helpfully delineates the past from the present. Despite a few rough edges, Battle of Memories is easy to recommend for fans of psychological thrillers when it screens Saturday night (7/1) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.