A chilling domestic thriller on the aftereffects of China’s One Child Policy within one family

(l. to r.) Zu Feng, Sun Xilun and Guo Keyu as seen in BRIEF HISTORY OF A FAMILY,
directed by Jianjie Lin. Courtesy of First Light Films.

Brief History of a Family is the stunning surprise among the films I saw at Sundance this week. The domestic thriller is the debut feature from Chinese director Jianjie Lin. Using a distinct visual style and creative sound design, Lin’s film portrays a growing menace within a middle-class family who takes in a teen boy.

After Shuo Yan (Xilun Sun) is hit on the head with a ball thrown by another student, Wei (Muran Lin) leads him to the nurse and eventually invites him home to play video games. As the Tu family comes to know Shuo, so does the viewer; Sun’s performance as Shuo is so quiet and reserved as to be constantly mysterious. We learn that his mother died when he was 10 and his father is abusive when drunk (which is often).

It’s obvious that Shuo’s family comes from less money than the Tus. He marvels at their bright, open apartment and wears the same hoodie and dark t-shirt for at least a third of the film. As he is a good student, attentive and polite, Mr. and Mrs. Tu (Keyu Guo, Red Cherry) welcome him into their home. Their son Wei, in contrast, is spoiled, selfish, and obsessed with video games and fencing. The difference between the boys is also illustrated in their costuming. As Shuo becomes more involved with and accepted into the family, he begins wearing Wei’s lighter clothing, whereas Wei dons darker clothes, feeling separated from his parents.

Guo Keyu as seen in BRIEF HISTORY OF A FAMILY, directed by Jianjie Lin. Courtesy of
First Light Films.

The cinematography in Brief History of a Family uses circular framing (it reminded this critic of 2016’s I Am Not Madame Bovary) sparingly to portray a sense of removal or surveillance. As Mr. Tu (Feng Zu, Coming Home) is a biologist, an obvious parallel is a view through a microscope. The shot composition by cinematographer Jiahao Zhang throughout this drama is artfully arranged. The apartment is thoughtfully composed by the production design team; a room divider made of glass distorts the audience’s view when the camera shoots through it. Sporadic electronic scoring accentuates the pacing of the film and adds an additional feeling of distortion, especially when compared to the melodic classical music Mr. Tu so appreciates.

Through discussion between the couple and in their talks with Shuo, the audience sees their hopes for the second child that couldn’t be (due to national policy at the time) reflected in him. They make the boy feel welcomed and appreciated after he becomes orphaned. There’s no cunning on his part, although another character’s paranoia feeds into that of the viewer.

This is a thriller with no jump scares, just a persistent unsettling feeling that pervades the work. I wanted to watch Brief History of a Family again soon after I finished to catch clues or visual hints I might have missed. It’s that impressive of a film, with memorable visuals and performances that remain on the viewer’s mind hours later.

Brief History of a Family is available on Sundance online through tomorrow.

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