Written and directed by Jianjie Lin, Brief History of a Family takes place in modern-day China, when the country has lifted its one-child policy. Teenager Tu Wei (Muran Lin), the son of an affluent family, befriends loner schoolmate Shuo (Xilun Shun), who is warmly welcomed by Wei’s parents (Ke-Yu Guo and Feng Zu). But as Shuo begins to spend more time with the family, dormant emotions begin to surface that threatens the family.
This sleek-looking drama presents an intriguing character study at its core among its four lead characters. At the forefront is the spoilt Wei – he prefers to spend his time fencing, playing games or watching videos rather than connect with his parents, who he considers a thorn in his side. But when Shuo comes into the equation and begins to take up his parents’ attention, it doesn’t take long for jealousy to settle in, especially as his friend’s quiet and attentive nature feels more of a natural fit to his academically driven parents.
However, Shuo is an enigma – a quiet soul with a fondness for reading and languages, he comes across as someone who needs help, eventually confiding to the Tu family that he lives in fear of his alcoholic father. This sways the maternal and paternal instincts of Wei’s parents while giving Shuo the guardians (and by extension, the family) he implicitly needs. Meanwhile, Wei’s parents seemingly latch onto Shuo as the son they never had – especially as he takes an interest in their lives such as classical music and travel. With China now encouraging multi-dependent families, Wei’s parents see Shuo as an opportunity to “raise” another child – something that would not have been possible ten years ago and could have been more impact if a female character would have been the focus of the family’s disruption. Nonetheless, each character in Lin’s debut feature has something to gain, as well as something to lose, over the course of the film – notably, a family – so seeing the tension not only build among them but also test their bonds throughout the film is both unsettling yet captivating.
What Lin does so effectively is how the narrative makes the audience question each character. With an eeriness and structure similar to Oscar winner Parasite, Brief History of a Family may look like an opportunist taking advantage of a family in a class higher than their own. But this may not be the truth as there are four sides to this tale, and each character brings different perspectives so the film’s web of tension and potential lies never wavers. This is due to the cast’s quietly powerful performances along with Lin’s charged screenplay and Margo Testamale’s atmospheric sound design, both of which gradually builds the narrative’s sinister side amid the close-quarters of the family’s lavish home. This combination also unnerves the audience by incorporating a sense of foreshadowing, especially when the parents’ increasing attentiveness to Shuo feeds their son’s jealous nature.
In addition, the crisp yet atmospheric visuals of Brief History of a Family – supported by Jiahao Zhang’s cinematography and Lin’s effective direction – enable the characters to drive the narrative through subtle body language and fraught dialogue. And while the film’s standout scene is a silent fight between Shuo and Wei with nothing more than a bedside light (and intermittent bouts of darkness) acting as a mediator, not even darkness can cut the nail-biting tension between Lin’s characters, and his remarkable ability to leave everything open to interpretation will glue audiences to the screen.
One of the quiet hits of Sundance 2024, Brief History of a Family is an outstanding modern thriller, and the simplicity of its production ironically elevates the complexity of the narrative. The end result will leave audiences guessing and with no fingernails.
Director: Jianjie Lin
Stars: Xilun Shun, Muran Lin, Ke-Yu Guo, Feng Zu
Runtime: 99 minutes
Country: China, Denmark, Qatar