Children often complain about not being able to choose their parents, but the opposite is true as well, and rarely explored in fiction with the elegance and pithiness of Jianjie Lin’s directorial debut Brief History of a Family. Set in modern China, where the emerging middle class is trying to form an identity, the film presents us with two sets of characters whose stories become intertwined in unexpectedly powerful ways.

We first meet Yan Shuo (Xilun Sun) as he’s literally hanging for dear life while attempting a pull-up in the schoolyard. When he falls and hurts his knee, he’s taken to the nurse by Wei (Muran Lin), a fellow schoolmate who pities him. The two become fast friends, and soon Wei invites Yan Shuo over to play video games and talk about their lives. 

Both boys––products of the controversial one-child policy used to control overpopulation in China for almost three decades––seem unable to communicate like children with siblings do. There is no sense of camaraderie or commiseration (certainly no complaints about sharing a home with fellow teenagers) and the two barely look at each other when they speak. It’s like watching people from different planets trying to address each other. And just as the film teases us into believing it might be a lovely coming-of-age story about adolescents creating bonds, we meet the second set of characters: Wei’s parents.

They erupt into the film like intruders in their own home, surprising Yan Shuo and Wei during an afternoon hangout. The guest introduces himself as “a classmate” and announces he’s leaving but is invited to dinner. Wei’s mother (Ke-Yu Guo) takes a special interest in the boy by caringly querying him, in which time she learns his mother died and father constantly neglects or abuses him (“beating is caring” being his motto). Wei’s father (Feng Zu) remains indifferent, the negative to his wife’s positive in the home dynamic.

As Yan Shuo becomes a constant presence in Wei’s home, he explores the rooms with childlike curiosity. Different sounds are emitted from each of the rooms occupied by the characters in the hallway––a serene meditation from the mother’s, hip-hop from the son’s, Bach from the father’s. Wei is used to sharing but not living in a space with them; his father is a biologist working with microorganisms and cells, his mother used to be a flight attendant. With one exploring under the surface and the other living in the skies, Wei is always alone on the ground. 

No surprise he’s not a model child, either. While his parents want him to get good grades and pursue a serious career, Wei’s thrills come from fencing, an activity he signed up for in secret. Yan Shuo, realizing he has more in common with Wei’s parents than their child, starts getting closer to them, making us wonder if he’s planning on Saltburn-ing his way into the family. When Wei announces he can’t go with his parents to a weekend event, the father immediately suggests they take Yan Shuo instead.

It’s almost impossible not to think of Emerald Fennell’s acidic class satire while watching Brief History of a Family. Will Wei try to replace the child? Are his parents willing to replace him? Rather than competing, the films make a stunning study in contrasts. Unlike Fennell’s upper-class world where the golden child exists to convey tradition and perpetuate legacies, in Lin’s world there is no choice of a golden child; even the ones who don’t shine are the only option.

Lin studies his characters like a scientist (it’s no surprise to learn he studied biology before deciding to make films) and often uses the camera lens like a microscope, attempting to get closer and better understand players in his experiment. Though the film has a clinical look and sometimes seems too obvious, Lin’s science humor infuses it with unexpected warmth. I cackled listening to Wei’s father talk about the ACE2 enzyme, which attaches itself to cells in key organs (hello, Yan Shuo!) to keep blood pressure in check (aww) but can also serve as an entry point for Coronavirus (uh-oh).

I didn’t know where Brief History of a Family was headed––precisely its point. It’s a film about the chaos of creation, about the violence that occurs in the creation of new worlds, deftly playing with genres to endlessly fascinating means. I couldn’t help thinking of chemistry classes in elementary school when we were invited to look closer at the world through microscopes, agog at what was happening within flower petals and pieces of watermelon Jolly Ranchers. I left Brief History of a Family with the same sense of wonder and melancholy that comes upon realizing how small we can be. 

Brief History of a Family premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: B+

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