Exploring the implications of China’s relatively recent post one-child policy, director and writer Jianjie Lin observes the underlying anxieties of his individual subjects as well as within a family unit in his film Brief History of a Family. When teenage Wei, coming from a comfortable middle class upbringing, meets his introverted classmate Shuo, the two become quick friends as Shuo’s outsider force into the home begins to disrupt the seeming tranquility of the Tu family. Drawing inspiration from the inner workings of individuals as well as the ambiguities within relationships, Lee successfully incorporates an air of uncertainty, tension and drama throughout his debut feature, raising more questions than answers as we follow each character in their day to day interactions.
The film’s opening scene shows Shuo straining to hold a pull-up, then promptly get hit in the head with a basketball. Out of a guilty conscience, Wei doesn’t confess to the attack, but instead invites Shuo over to play video games and have dinner with his parents. Shuo’s swift assimilation into the Tu family forces a new balance within the unit, one that has Wei’s parents showing affection and gratitude for the essentially newly adopted son and brings to light the rift that Wei has with his parents. Wei’s rebellious nature clashes with his father’s stern demeanor and exercises in self-improvement, while his annoyance towards his mother makes her gravitate towards Shuo’s listening ear and helpful personality. Shuo’s involvement in activities that Wei likely never had the chance to experience, such as traveling for a family trip, causes Wei to drift further and further away from his roots and more into himself like an anticipatory emotional time bomb waiting to explode. When Wei does act out, it’s generally in the form of physical fights or blows.
Lee’s subtleties in dialogue and pacing is meticulously crafted, shrouding his characters in mystery and posing the question of who and what exactly are we to trust. With his introverted tendencies on top of very little shown in the way of Shuo’s background aside from his mother’s sudden death and his alcoholic father’s abusive behavior, it’s difficult to tell what, if any, Shuo’s underlying intentions are. He gives very little away about his own history, instead leaving the viewer in charge of filling in the gaps.The use of classical music from composers like Bach interspersed with sparse electronic sounds lends itself to a jarring and suspenseful atmosphere coupled with the Tu’s sleek yet void of life blue and white coloring in their modern apartment. With acute poignancy and insight into the psychology behind his characters and their interactions with each other, Lee’s debut feature is undoubtedly a promising and satisfying one.
You can purchase an online ticket to watch BRIEF HISTORY OF A FAMILY via Sundance Film Festival 2024 here.