Brief History Of A Family


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

A Brief History Of Family
"Lin and Sun studiously maintain the enigma around Shuo so that we are left guessing as to whether he’s just a disadvantaged teen trying to make his way in the world or a cuckoo in the nest." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

It’s not the history so much as the anatomy of a family that is scrutinised by Jianjie Lin in his slippery psychological drama. With a cool and unsettling mood reminiscent of Michael Haneke and ambiguities that recall Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, Lin offers a chiller in the shadow of China’s post-one-child policy.

Wei (Lin Muran) is a kid from a middle-class background with a biologist dad (Zu Feng) and a mum (Guo Keyu) who, having left her life as a flight attendant behind her, has poured all her energy into her son. An incident at school sees Wei take fellow teenager Shuo (Sun Xilun) home with him. It’s quickly apparent that Shuo’s background is vastly different from that of Wei with his reaction to being offered five types of soy sauce by Wei’s mum speaking volumes. He, in fact, is pretty taciturn but reveals that his mother is dead, while increasingly hinting at a violent relationship with his father.

The parent/child disconnection between Wei is almost painfully evident. He likes fencing and playing computer games, even though his father is pushing him to be more academic. His dad queues to get his son a place on a course as an announcement declares: “Conquer English. Realise you and your child’s dream to study abroad.” But his aspirations are at odds with his son, who declares: “My future is not a dream.”

Shuo on the other hand is a studious sort and attentive to Wei’s mother - something Wei welcomes at first since it takes the pressure off him. The teen also begins to bond with Wei’s father over his love of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier but, as Lin keeps us in the Tu family home so that we never get a first-person glimpse of what is genuinely happening in Shuo’s homelife, suspicions begin to mount that it may be the family who is being played. Lin and Sun studiously maintain the enigma around Shuo so that we are left guessing as to whether he’s just a disadvantaged teen trying to make his way in the world or a cuckoo in the nest.

The sense of the impersonal dominates in the sharp edged landscape of the city and the shiny surfaces in Wei’s home, with the often industrial and timpanic scoring from Toke Brorson Odin stoking the mood. Lin lets the tensions simmer between the boys so that one-upmanship over a light becomes a dangerous game at the flick of a switch.

For the parents, meanwhile, this is a study of the tragedy of striving without end. Doing whatever it takes to conform to government policy, no matter the emotional cost, and, as a result, never being truly satisfied with the result. Their willingness to become invested in Shuo is as interesting as his ability to slip seamlessly into their lives and as the stakes begin to mount, Lin makes sure we’re invested too and offers a return on that which avoids cliche.

Reviewed on: 29 Feb 2024
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A middle-class family’s fate becomes intertwined with their only son’s enigmatic new friend in post one-child policy China, putting unspoken secrets, unmet expectations, and untended emotions under the microscope.

Director: Jianjie Lin

Writer: Jianjie Lin

Starring: Ke-Yu Guo, Feng Zu, Xilun Sun, Muran Lin

Year: 2024

Runtime: 99 minutes

Country: China, Denmark

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