Sculpting a story

Jianjie Lin on working layer by layer on Brief History Of A Family

by Paul Risker

Brief History Of A Family
Brief History Of A Family

Chinese director Jianjie 'JJ' Lin’s feature debut, Brief History Of A Family revolves around the shifting dynamics of a middle-class family. Wei, an only child in post one-child policy China befriends the reclusive Shuo, inviting him back home. Wei’s parents warm to the vulnerable teenager. As time passes, their friendship disrupts the dynamic Wei shares with his parents, as Shuo comes to resemble the son they’d quietly wished for.

In conversation with Eye For Film, Lin spoke about experiencing an existential crisis that set him on an unexpected path, his patient and detail orientated approach to filmmaking, and reimagining a traditional genre film.

Paul Risker: What appeals to you about filmmaking as a means of creative expression?

Jianjie 'JJ' Lin: I used to study biology and for a big part of my life I had very little to do with film. When I was in college, close to graduation, I had an early existential crisis about what I was going to do next. I had an offer to pursue biology in the best school in China and I was told it was a ten-year commitment. So, I had to do a lot of soul searching and choosing film was a leap of faith.

Actually, at college I started watching more films and I began watching films by the old masters, such as, [Andrei] Tarkovsky, [Ingmar] Bergman and [Federico] Fellini, that led me see a whole different world of what film can be. I thought it might be an interesting thing to try, but even in film school I wasn’t sure this was the right path.

PR: In these films by the old masters, what were you seeing that was new?

JJ: Before I saw those films, I'd go to the cinema and see films that were about entertaining you and making you laugh. These films [by the old masters], were telling completely different kinds of stories and showing a different perspective – there was something about them that they probably matter more.

PR: Watching Brief History Of A Family, I had this thought there's a spiritual connection to European cinema in the way you play with the cinematic language and tell the story.

JJ: The influences were probably more subconscious. I do feel drawn to European cinema, but in general, cinema from everywhere. All the films that I've watched that I've liked, whether they're from Europe, America or Asia, they all play a part subconsciously in the creation of my own work. Although, I can see that European films would be a big influence.

PR: What was the genesis of the story or the seed of the idea for this film?

JJ: It begins with a feeling I was trying to capture. It's the feeling that family life is a mystery because in China we have a saying: 'Home Sweet Home'. You have this happy façade, where all the people in this unit have to love and respect each other, but for me there's always the layer of 'What about the individuals in these families? What do they need? What’s in their minds?' So, I always found a sense of mystery about families.

Deciding to make my first feature took a long time because you might have a lot of ideas, but not all of them will grow with you. I tend to choose the projects that stay with me for a while because that reassures me that it will inspire me in the long run. Brief History Of A Family was one of those projects that stayed with me and inspired me every step of the way.

It's not like the film came to me all at once and I saw it in my head. It's a long process of finding and sculpting it.

There was a feeling I was trying to capture but you cannot make a film because of that feeling. You need substance, you need to research into the social aspects, but you also can’t only make a film because of the social aspects, or at least not the kind of film I want to make. It’s a lot of other things and you gather all of this material, and you have to start thinking about from which angle and perspective you’re going to tell the story.

For this film in particular, one turning point in the process was finding the angle of the outsider’s point-of-view looking in, and then finding this biological perspective of how we can analyse their feelings, while we're trying to get close to their emotions and psychology.

Having a unique point of contact with the story, it flourishes. The process is also about adding layers to the film because you can view it as a simple story on the superficial level and you can also try to dissect what's beneath the surface. It's like you're making a sculpture, and you shape it by adding the details.

PR: Filmmakers have told me there are three versions of the film – the film that’s written, the film that’s shot, and the film that’s edited. Is there a fourth version that’s created by the audience?

JJ: You're right, and lucky for me I experienced all of those versions. The script I wrote is more or less the film we shot. I had to make some adjustments during the shooting for budgetary reasons, and also Covid. In the editing, I was able to stay open minded and try things with the structure, in terms of the visuals, sound and music. All of these layers in this film are what makes it beautiful to me.

The film that the audience creates in their head is interesting. It’s at the core of the creative process because my job, or my challenge, is to aid the film in being open for the audience. Everyone will come with their own theory about what actually happened, and even, who is Shuo?

It’s a beautiful process to be able to maintain that ambiguity, so we can also inspire the audience just as the material has inspired me. I want to inspire the audience instead of telling them what to think or having a message that I want to preach.

PR: When we talk about listening to a film, we’re referring to the dialogue or music. I feel most immersed when there’s either silence or only the diegetic sounds. Music plays a part in this film, but from the opening scenes it has a rich soundscape that becomes another character.

JJ: I play with the sound in my short films, but it's more realistic and so there is a limited use of sound. When I was writing this script and I decided to add some genre elements, I knew sound would play a big part. The other thing I noticed, which ties into what you said before about the three different versions, is when I first watched this film, I realised there was still a lot of silence. It stood out to me, and I thought it offered rich ground to play around with the sound and add tension to their relationship, and to add layers of mystery.

I worked with the composer [Toke Brorson Odin] first, who had a very interesting and unique style. He crafted this unique music score. We were constantly adjusting it, but what I also found interesting was the type of quality of sound that he used, and this inspired the sound designer, because sound and music are an extension of one another. So, I try to blur the line between the two.

When the sound designer [Margot Testemale] came in, she also brought a lot of her sense of music into composing the soundtrack of the film. And, not wanting to make a straightforward genre film, I decided we’d use the soundscape in the big city, all the industrial sounds, but we’d make them a little unfamiliar to the audience.

PR: The choice of the classical music pieces you’ve chosen is particularly striking. Is the music also an extension of the character of the father, or the interpersonal relationships more broadly?

JJ: It’s about finding specific pieces of classical music that will inform the pacing - that's very important. The film is like the first Bach piece we use - you have some simple elements that you keep playing with and the patterns are changing. It makes you feel you're going into the film knowing what you're going to see, but the patterns and the dynamic of the characters changes. There is a certain arrogance to this.

Of course, it's also tied into the father's character but that's only the first level because it’s how it ties into the pace and rhythm of the film. I think that was the general idea of choosing different classical music, that would at some point take us through this journey of discovery. It becomes more a contrast between the music and the characters, and what they're thinking.

PR: The camera alternates between being up close, distant and even has an obstructed point-of-view. It's a voyeuristic camera whose presence is emphasised by the rich soundscape of what’s in and out of the frame.

JJ: Those came from the pull between two ideas. For the camerawork, the DOP [Jiahao Zhang] and I were talking about forces pulling in opposite directions, between an objective point of view to observe and analyse (in that sense of observing, it's also voyeuristic), but there was also the urge to get to know more about the characters.

One of the interesting things about the cinematography, is through the use of camerawork we think we're getting closer to the characters, but are we really? That was the question that kept coming up. Then between the sound and the image, there's another layer of contrast we were trying to go for. The camera looks cool, distant and formalistic, and we wanted the sound to be a little more invasive to really get into the characters' minds, but we didn’t want to tell people how they should feel. Instead, you get to decide how you want to feel about the characters.

PR: The film’s playfulness is in stripping back a familiar genre film’s plot and dramatic moments.

JJ: I never intended to make a straightforward genre film, even though I do think genre is interesting, in the sense that it creates an expectation. It’s then up to you to decide what you do with that.

The premise of this film lends itself to a certain type of genre story that people have expectations of. This gives me the freedom to do something and to create a world that's a bit different. The audience can fill in the blanks.

A certain kind of audience will of course be more drawn to this kind of cinema, which is why you need to establish a conversation with the film. For the audience that will be doing that, the film will offer them more because finding the film’s meaning will become part of their viewing experience. Actually, by not saying a lot, you are essentially. In whatever isn't said, a lot is being said.

Brief History of a Family screened as part of Sundance 2024’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition, and screens in the Panorama section of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival.

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