What if you remembered committing a murder you didn’t actually commit?
Memory is one of the most fluid facets of the human experience, neither fully explicable nor entirely quantifiable. For the last century, the cinematic arts have attempted to give it some kind of physical form, establishing the visual parlance of the flashback (and, thanks to our understanding of the evolution of technology, the implications of black & white). We largely understand how and when memories are portrayed on screen, but every so often, works dealing with the nature of memory itself come along to shake up the established paradigm, getting in between the layers of the process of remembering.
Taiwanese director Leste Chen’s Battle of Memories is by no means on par with the expertly crafted Rashomon. It lacks the laser-focus of Memento and the thoughtful esoteric abstraction of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It is at its very worst thuddingly literal, and often undercuts its own premise for the sake of the odd “shock.” And yet, it belongs firmly on the same shelf as those aforementioned classics when it comes to its use of form, using the shifting nature of cinematic perspective not just to enhance a story about memory, but as the text of the story itself.
The film’s unique relationship between memory and media takes the form of a retro-futuristic sci-fi mystery, a familiar premise of memory extraction and implantation taken a small step further. In 2025, erasing painful or undesired memories is an upscale service, but for acclaimed novelist Jiang Feng, it’s also the center of a divorce agreement. He wants certain memories of his soon to be ex-wife Zhang Daichen wiped from his conscious mind, while she wants him to keep them for reasons best left unspoiled. Nefarious as it may sound, this damaged relationship between two authors coming from wildly different viewpoints forms a key part of the emotional core. In the midst of the process, one involving extracted memories stored on personalized hard drives only accessible by the client in question, an unprecedented mix up results in Jiang being saddled with hints of someone else’s murderous past, and memories of the deaths of two married women.
Bit by bit, details of things Jiang never experienced begin coming back to him. He’s inserted into dramatic and even violent black & white flashbacks without any real context, like a textually justified exercise in piecing together disparate bits of dramatic information. Restored memories solidify in 72 hours after which they can no longer be re-extracted, setting Jiang and a pair of skeptical detectives on a race to solve these crimes before the killer’s memories become a permanent part of him. But there’s a catch. See, despite its distinctly technological setup, Battle of Memories doesn’t treat past experiences like files you can simply delete. Rather than erasing them wholesale, the invasive, Lasik-esque process involves changing one's relationship to memories, taking what was once a subjective experience and severing the emotional ties.
When expressed visually, it’s the difference between experiencing love at first sight, with all the familiar elements of Rom Com fare – like Jiang and Zhang’s meet-cute mix up, with papers strewn about in appropriate slow motion – and simply watching two people bump into each other from a distance. While events can still be recalled, what’s really being erased is the emotional experiences they’re connected with and the empathy that generates, which brings up an interesting question regarding the reverse. If given someone else’s memories, do we also take on their emotional experience? Could the solidifying of these violent memories fundamentally change Jiang as a person? The answer to that is, well… it’s complicated.
While Battle of Memories falls back on conventions of action-infused murder mystery (for better, and undoubtedly for worse), its narrative plate-spinning is not without thematic high points. Thanks to its proclivity for satisfying the basest of impulses when it comes to “surprising” the audience, it rarely follows through with its many emotionally-charged original ideas, but when it does, boy does it ever. What becomes clear before long is that it isn’t merely a story about violent crimes of passion. In both cases, Jiang – now standing in for the murderer, re-living his or her experiences first hand – finds himself in close proximity to a battered housewife. The murderer is not the abuser in question (that would be each woman’s husband), but what starts out a “whodunnit” slowly begins to unravel itself as a tale of domestic violence. There is a strange nobility to these murders, experienced as conflicting emotions by Jiang as he attempts to uncover the killer’s identity, making the parsing of motive a much tougher task than originally expected. What’s more, the ways in which these memories seem to change Jiang, if at all, is left unsettlingly open-ended.
His behaviour towards his wife becomes more erratic. The thought of the killer having his memories in exchange makes him over-protective, and his on-edge, borderline violent demeanor feels totally justified within the narrative. And yet, his wife and her female friend are left utterly terrified, as they’re followed and yanked away by the arm even in the name of legitimate safety. “That’s not who he is,” maintains Zhang. Surely it must be the new memories! Then again, this insistence on violence not “really” being one’s husband is also explicitly part of Jiang’s new flashbacks. This is exactly what the killer is told by the two abused women who end up dead. Is Jiang’s violent streak brought on by a re-wiring in emotional equilibrium? Or was it always within the author to be brutish to women underneath his kindly persona?
As Jiang tries to grasp the details of his flashbacks – at times walking through them a passenger, other times moving about them freely, dreaming lucidly while under arrest – the detectives begin to realize there is truth to his claims, and begin their own investigation into the murders. One is already on record, a recent case of domestic violence seemingly taken too far, but the other remains entirely undiscovered. The connection between these two deaths is as mysterious as it is fascinating, given Jiang’s (or rather, the killer’s) differing behaviour around both victims. They don’t even really seem like the actions of the same individual, the same way Jiang’s actions no longer seem like his own. Amidst all its messy machinations about the killer’s identity, one thing remains at the forefront of the film’s M.O., and that’s how experience shapes who we are.
The break-neck speed of the exposition occasionally works against letting us chew on each new morsel, but the way new information manifests visually after the fact is where the film truly finds itself. The conceit frees the two flashback narratives from having to follow a linear structure. Details are revealed only when they become pertinent to the plot, i.e. as and when Jiang is driven to recall them, but until they become clear, Jiang’s haphazard walkthroughs take on a nightmarish tone, as he’s caught between committing uncharacteristic violence, and attempting to escape these violent scenarios that have him trapped like a hall of mirrors. While the mystery starts out entirely separate from Jiang and his divorce, the two tales begin to entangle when the killer begins closing in on Zhang. Not only because the killer has Jiang’s memories in exchange, but because Jiang’s aggressive escalation inadvertently places Zhang in a familiar domestic situation. Without giving too much away, yes, how Jiang’s memories affect the killer’s perspective comes into play as well.
Its originality ought to propel it to the top of any must-see list, but its thriller genre trappings are an unfortunate axe to the foot. The story cycles through a number of ostensibly silly mystery tropes, riding a fine line between lamp shading and full-on endorsement when it comes to revealing the killer’s identity. If there’s one fatal flaw to be found, it’s that the film's affinity for “twists” results in sudden thematic pivots that would’ve benefitted from breathing room. Instead they’re fired out of a canon. The noise overrides the emotional impact, making catching up to the story an active, at times frustrating process, but let it not be said that it isn’t first and foremost a character piece.
Bo Huang’s Jiang is sweet and noble, at least at the outset. He gets roped up in something much bigger than himself, while falling victim to either his or someone else’s darker impulses in the process of trying to do good. But the film’s real MVP has to be Jinglei Xu’s Zhang Diachen, Jiang’s wife whose own writing career took a backseat thanks to the inferior role society expected her to fill upon tying the knot with her peer. They’re a troubled couple in a bad place even before film starts, but they aren’t necessarily nasty. Their impending divorce doesn’t stem from bad blood, but circumstance, a whole lot of hurt that’s dragged to the surface when Jiang’s psyche is thrust into the spotlight, and his narrow perspective placed under a microscope.
While undeniably messy in execution, Battle of Memories ultimately succeeds as both a thought-provoking experiment on cinematic perspective, and an examination of said perspective as it applies to long-standing gender dynamics. It treats the self-proclaimed nobility of men, whether as abusers or potential white knights, as a self-imposed blind spot, ignorant of the physical and emotional pain inadvertently inflicted on women, and it does all this while dragging Jiang through a unique psychological experience: forcing a writer to expand his worldview on either side, both towards people he loves as well as well as those he fears empathizing with in the first place. It’s an experience that feels like taking the plunge into risky storytelling, both as viewers and creators, providing a subjective window into someone else’s experience in ways that can fundamentally change you. As much as it’s cinema about memory and murder, it’s cinema about cinema itself.
Battle of Memories is now playing in North America. Its stellar trailer is all the convincing you’ll need: