‘Brief History of a Family’ Review: A Subtle Psychological Thriller

Pradeep
7 Min Read

Identified only by the surname Tu, the husband and wife in “Brief History of a Family” have constructed a comfortable middle-class life together following China’s one-child policy. Now, in a less restrictive era, an opportunity to expand their immediate family arises with the arrival of their teenage son’s enigmatic new companion.

Through varying viewpoints, filmmaker Lin Jianjie explores the contained tension within this quartet. While some of his stylistic choices may be precise or overly deliberate in their artificiality, his first feature showcases a promising talent. Featuring captivating performances, a restrained narrative, and lingering unanswered queries, the film exudes a strong sense of longing along with tantalizing undercurrents of suspicion and unease.

The two boys are schoolmates who apparently have never interacted until the day Wei (Lin Muran) makes an overture of friendship that’s less innocent than it seems. The studious loner Shuo (Sun Xilun) becomes a regular guest at the Tus’ well-appointed high-rise apartment, igniting a simmering resentment in Wei and, in a low-key, nonsexual spin on Teorema, drawing out the parents’ unresolved emotions.

Brief History of a Family Review

The Bottom Line

Strikingly enigmatic.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Cast: Zu Feng, Guo Keyu, Sun Xilun, Lin Muran
Director-screenwriter: Lin Jianjie

1 hour 40 minutes

The father, Zu Feng, is a biologist, while the mother, Guo Keyu, used to work as a flight attendant. We discover this information during Shuo’s initial visit. As Shuo takes in the view, the spaciousness, and the elegant decor (credited to the talented production designer Xu Yao), he inquires of Wei, “What do your parents do?” This simple question subtly and humorously highlights the social gap between them. During a meal, Shuo asks for soy sauce, prompting Wei’s mother to offer him four different varieties of the condiment, surprising him. After selecting one, he pours it generously over his rice, his lack of dining etiquette causing a moment of stunned silence.

Another kind of silence greets Shuo’s disclosure that his mother died suddenly when he was 10. Bit by bit, bruise by bruise, he divulges that his father is a violent alcoholic. But Lin offers no glimpses of the boy’s home life, leaving us — and eventually one central character — to wonder if everything he says is true.

The director focuses the narrative on the stylish Tu apartment, which, following a significant offscreen event, also becomes Shuo’s residence. Even before this development, Shuo had already integrated himself into the family. As he moves through the apartment’s hallway, passing by the feng shui fish tank, his presence is purposeful rather than aimless. He listens to Mrs. Tu’s meditation tapes in one room, Mr. Tu’s Bach music in another, and Wei’s video games in the boy’s bedroom. During his first overnight stay, he confidently expresses his preferences when borrowing clothes from Wei.

In a late-night conversation with Wei’s mother, Shuo draws her out with an impressive off-the-cuff tenderness. Guo, who first made her mark onscreen as a teenager and for whom this film is a return to acting after a nearly 10-year break, offers a compelling portrait of gentleness, maternal warmth and regret.

The heightened vision of her in the supermarket, not quite lost but incongruously fancied up, hints at some of the more surreal moments ahead from Lin and cinematographer Zhang Jiahao. Shooting in Chengdu, Hangzhou and Beijing, they create an unspecified city with an emphasis on its enormity, the edifices (and the produce displays) dwarfing the characters.

Zu brings a colder form of constraint, with revealing cracks in the surface, to the role of Wei’s father, who’s impressed by Shuo’s focus and drive. The boy’s ambition is precisely what Mr. Tu longs for from his son, who’s ordinary in his insolent teenage laziness and more interested in fencing than the advanced English program his father insists he enroll in. Soon, Shuo is taking Wei’s place in the parents’ Ivy League dreams, and literally stands in for their son on a family weekend getaway.

Bringing Shuo into their fold, the parents find themselves on newly unstable ground, unsettled but also renewed. For Mrs. Tu especially, Shuo represents a second shot at parenthood, a way of healing an emotional wound — a wound that can easily be torn open, as when another couple (Wang Shi and Zhu Zhu) announce that, in light of the reversal of longtime government policy, they’re expecting their second child.

With minimal dialogue, the two young actors Sun and Lin evince a subtle reversal. Their unforced performances leave us to wonder, in Shuo’s watchful maneuvers and Wei’s increasingly stricken gaze, who’s helping whom, and who’s being honest — questions of identity mirrored in the reflective surfaces within the family home and their slightly confounding effect.

The boys, in their adolescent confusion and awakening, waver between the impulse to save and the impulse to hurt. There’s an undertow of potential violence to the drama, percolating in its dark, propulsive score by Toke Brorson Odin (Winter Brothers), its suspenseful sound design by Margot Testemale and Jacques Pedersen, and the unrushed precision of Per K. Kirkegaard’s editing.

At times, there is a dreamlike quality to the narrative, while at other times, a scientific perspective emerges. Lin, who holds a degree in bioinformatics, incorporates a circular motif that symbolically links the four main characters to cells observed under a microscope slide. He draws parallels between the flow of blood in veins and people moving through city streets. While some of these visual techniques may momentarily interrupt rather than enhance the storyline, these interruptions are brief. While the biological metaphors may not always resonate, the poignant and potentially perilous interactions among four wounded individuals never fail to captivate.

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