Jianjie Lin’s debut Brief History of a Family is an astonishing film dealing with the remnants of China’s one-child policy – and the expectations placed by parents.
The first time we see teenager Shuo Yan (Xilun Sun) in Jianjie Lin’s debut Brief History of a Family, he is trying to reach a higher place. It may just be on the playground pull-up bar, but it is clear that this will be an important moment. After he falls and hurts his leg, he meets the middle-class Wei Tu (Muran Lin) and the two are drawn to one another. Soon, Wei is bringing Shuo home to meet his parents. His father (Feng Zu) is a cell biologist for a medical equipment company, whilst his mother (Ke-Yu Guo) travelled a lot before settling down and raising Wei. In contrast, Shuo comes from a different background. His mother died suddenly when he was 10, and now he lives alone with his drunk, abusive father.
Yet, as he spends more time with the Tus, the more we discover secrets and hidden emotions in this family unit. And when an incident leads to Shuo staying with them indefinitely, things are complicated further.
It has been nearly a decade since China ended its much-debated one-child policy. However, the remnants of this initiative are still being felt today, and it is arguably the crux of Jianjie Lin’s film. “He is our second chance,” Wei’s mother says about Shuo, in a conversation that also brings up how she and her husband were directly impacted by the single-child limit. It is the hope of filling a paternalistic want that leads to them bringing this stranger into their bubble. How that affects everything is examined forensically in Brief History of a Family, a must-watch at both Sundance and Berlin this year.
For starters, Lin’s script is completely in tune with its characters. Shuo is quiet and reserved, more content with reading and keeping to himself. Wei calls him “peculiar,” and it is easy to see why from his perspective. Outgoing and athletic, he is a direct opposite in so many ways. There is one other massive difference though. Shuo spends a lot of time with Wei’s parents, whereas Wei just wants them to leave him alone. From the former’s interactions with them, we find out the mother is a kind and knowing housewife, though with possibly some uneasiness underneath the surface.
Conversely, the father is a little colder but is swayed by Shuo’s desire to improve and better himself – something he doesn’t see in his actual son, who struggles academically and struggles to find any inspiration outside of fencing. Is there too much pressure on him or is he too aimless?
Lin – who almost became a bioengineer before pivoting to filmmaking – has spoken of wanting to place these characters under the microscope in Sundance’s “Meet The Artist” interview on “Brief History of a Family,” and he does so literally. Early on in the film, there are several iris shots of cells on a molecular level (which fits in with Wei’s father’s job). Then we cut to a bird’s eye view of Wei and his parents under that same spotlight. DP Jiahao Zhang helps carry out this visual flourish and many more. There are overhead shots and slow-motion shots, mirror shots and shots of characters mirroring others. It all feels sleek and inviting – just like Wei’s home, full of hi-tech doors and copious varieties of soy sauce. It is no wonder Shuo takes in this new luxury surrounding, a giant step up from his upbringing.
Additionally, just as classical pieces from composers like Bach contrast with a thumping electro score by Toke Brorson Odin, the chiming ringtones and Zen atmosphere of the Tu family home contrast with the harsh, abrupt sounds from Wei’s gaming. And the performances are all great and full of poise. In particular, Muran Lin conveys Wei’s growing jealousy perfectly. Watching on as Shuo plays a greater and greater role in his family, typical teenage emotions fester into something more resentful and uncertain.
It works because Jianjie Lin plays things subtly enough, hinting at pressures and tensions whilst keeping the story riveting at every point. And Brief History of a Family is an incredible debut for its writer-director, and an astonishing dark drama centring on the lingering consequences of China’s one-child policy and the overachieving pressures placed on its children. These themes are captured wonderfully by Jiahao Zhang’s camerawork, both vibrant and incredibly observant as it either watches from afar or captures characters looking on. Significantly, it shows how precise Lin is as he delves into not just the Tus but modern China, where parental expectations can be as high as its skyscrapers.
Brief History of a Family premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 19, 2024 and will have its International Premiere in February in Berlin. Read our list of 20 films to watch at Sundance 2024 and take a look at all our Sundance reviews!