Brief History of a Family (2024) Berlinale 2024

January 19th, 2024
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir/Wri: Jianjie Lin | Cast: Feng Zu, Ke-Yu Guo, Xilun Sun, Muran Lin | China, Thriller 99’

Beijing in post-one child policy China is the setting for this stylish but unnerving Michael Haneke-style psychological drama. Brief History of a Family, the feature debut of Jianjie Lin, shows the striking modern face of the city, far away from Wuxia and social realist Chinese fare we’ve become used, although the traditional Chinese themes of loyalty, discipline, betrayal, rivalry and even misogyny are present and subtly interwoven into this intriguing thriller.

Unfolding in series of glowingly-captured serene scenes, accompanied by an occasional score of gentle classical piano music that alternates with disconcerting electronic vibes, the story follows a middle class couple, Mrs Tu and her husband, a biologist, who have only recently been married and share a tragic secret that promts Mrs Tu to strike up a relationship with their son Tu Wei’s enigmatic new friend when he comes for tea after an alarming incident at school which is brushed under the carpet. 

Yan Shuo is thoughtful and reserved, and still traumatised into a state of near catatonia by the sudden death of his mother. The troubled teen talks of being abused by his father, who we never meet, but whose sudden death casts a sinister veil over his past, intensifying the boyish rivalry between the two teenagers that develops a violent edge when Tu Wei’s parents start to talk openly of adopting the morose orphan who is more artistic and academic than their sporty son, who nevertheless excels in fencing, competing for a place in the local team. 

The director shows how important study and discipline is in his homeland, and how the focus of modern professional parents is their offsprings’ education abroad. One disturbing scene sees Dr Tu queuing to get his son a place at college where a mantra is piped continuously over the tanoy: ‘Conquer English and realise your children’s dream to study abroad.’ Only 30 percent will be admitted to college in China, putting pressure on the kids to knuckle down to their studies. And they are seen doing so in an almost clinical classroom.

As the couple take Yan Shuo under their wing they are increasingly drawn towards his commitment and academic prowess, to the detriment of the boys’ personal relationship. Family secrets and buried feelings soon give rise to increased tensions that test the bonds and expectations that bind the four of them together until the shattering resolution finally dawns in a quietly devastating finale.

One of the many triumphs here is Jianjie Lin’s accomplished direction and the restrained yet potent performances from the ensemble cast. With its striking Danish sound and classical score of Bach, Mozart and Schubert, this is a tense and tightly-scripted arthouse thriller that never outstays its welcome at 99 minutes. An impressive first film from a director heading for international success. @MeredithTaylor

WORLD PREMIERE | Grand Jury Prize, World Cinema, Dramatic SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2024 | BERLINALE GWFF Nominee Best First Feature Award, and Panorama Audience Award.

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