A novel and unique high-concept premise for a story does not actually translate to being a well-told story. Just because the story one is seeking to tell may be based on some intriguing plays on old conventions, or introduce entirely new ideas to the realms of fiction, that story isn’t worth much unless plotted in such a way as to get the audience invested and remain engaging thereafter. This is the issue with Battle of Memories, a soft sci-fi mystery thriller that sounds really interesting on paper, but in practice just never finds its footing.
In a near future, Jiang Feng (Bo Huang) undergoes a procedure to have painful memories of his wife (Jinglei Xu) removed as he prepares to divorce her. When she refuses to sign the papers unless he has a full understanding of what that means, he has the memories reimplanted, only to discover that he has instead been given someone else’s memories of perpetrating a recent murder. Jiang Feng turns himself over to the police, who keep him under observation as he starts to remember more and more to bring them closer to finding the killer.
There are a lot of interesting ideas bandied about by Battle of Memories, whether it be the cat and mouse pursuit of a killer who now has Jiang Feng’s memories and can now threaten his wife or something a bit more esoteric, like how having the killer’s memories affects Jiang Feng’s personality to make him more cunning and violent than he was previously. While these concepts are touched upon, they are unfortunately never fully explored because the film’s script lacks heavily in the characterization necessary to make those changes hit home. We spend a lot of time ruminating on how Jiang Feng is changing, but we never get a moment that adequately establishes him as the mild-mannered guy that acts in contrast to the darker personality we see emerging. This causes a thematic subplot about hidden selves in domestically abusive relationships to fall completely flat, and the film feels a bit hollow because of it.
As for the mechanics of the mystery plot, these too suffer from a poor ratio of establishment to consequence. Admittedly, the final twist is a shocking reveal that works well, but for the majority of the film we’re restricted to a singular, overly obvious red herring that we’re forced to treat as the only credible option for way too long. The purpose of a mystery is to keep the audience guessing, but if one holds the audience’s hand for too long toward a single conclusion, even if it’s a false conclusion to be subverted, the mystery becomes tedious, leaving the audience to wonder why the story is continuing to be drawn out for so long. This story needed more red herrings, more potential leads that didn’t pan out but ultimately revealed new truths. Instead, Battle of Memories is a waiting game until a climax that, while admittedly pretty cool, isn’t worth the journey to get there.
Battle of Memories‘s central conceit of a memory-manipulating machine used to help solve a murder is a very intriguing one, but the story into which it was incorporated is so poorly paced and plotted that it almost becomes a background element to be ignored, which can only do such an innovative idea a major disservice. This is a film that should have impressed with its ingenuity. Instead, it blew all its good ideas in the earliest planning stages.