Brief History of a Family (2024)

Sundance Film Review: Brief History of a Family

Film Reviews

Sundance Film Review: Brief History of a Family
Director: Jianjie Lin

Films Boutique
Premiere: 01.19

From its opening frames, it’s clear that Jianjie Lin’s debut feature Brief History of a Family is directed by someone who really cares about telling a story through images. That shouldn’t be remarkable, but film is a medium in which storytellers with a true visual instinct have become few and far between. In Brief History, Lin communicates in a stylized and expressive visual language that always prioritizes images over dialogue.

It’s the story of a lower-class high schooler, Shuo (Xilun Sun, Ordinary Hero), as he integrates himself into the family life of a middle-class classmate, Wei (Muran Lin, Yesterday Once More). The film is a small focused thriller—tensions surface, rivalries form and past deeds are relitigated. It’s also an incisive and emotional exploration of the repercussions of China’s former one-child policy, a subject mentioned briefly but felt deeply throughout in the characters’ interactions and motivations. 

The images from Lin and cinematographer Jiahao Zhang (Dui Li Mian) are where Brief History of a Family gets really exciting, with scenes and characters drenched in lovely light, shadow and color. It’s very smartly staged in parts, taking advantage of things like video calls and digital photo albums without feeling gimmicky or overly clever. The film feels confident and its sense of confidence is well-earned.

Occasionally, the visuals become expressionistic as emotions overflow the bounds of regular space and time: characters occupy corners of the frame overwhelmed by space and scenery; time passes with dreamlike haste between flicks of a light switch; characters fence with umbrellas in a silhouetted, in-between place. Flared emotions are intercut with microscopic imagery of blood in veins, and one shot’s use of light and moving shadow made me immediately scribble in my notes, almost illegibly, “WOW FISH SHADOWS FROM AQUARIUM!”

What a vibrant debut this is, feverish with ideas and energy. Whatever Lin’s next project is, he’s got no shortage of infectious ingenuity to pull it off. –Daniel Kirkham

Read more of SLUG‘s comprehensive coverage of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.