Jianjie Lin Interview – Director of ‘Brief History of a Family’ / Available On Streaming Rental or Purchase


Stories about outsiders calmly and gradually intruding on the inner mechanics of a wealthy family are nothing new in cinema, but rarely have they been so subtly crafted and emotionally intense as Jianjie Lin’s debut feature Brief History of a Family. Set in a post-one-child policy China, Lin’s story of an underachieving schoolkid Wei (Muran Lin) who befriends the courteous but opaque Shuo (Xilun Sun) carefully but confidently unravels the uncertainty of family dynamics after momentous social restrictions have been lifted.

As Wei’s parents (Ke-Yu Guo and Feng Zu) grow more comfortable with ingesting Shuo into their life, Lin explores with mundane repetitions, abstract imagery, and an arresting soundscape what the middle-class Chinese family means from an inside and outside perspective. Talking with Projektor ahead of the film’s premiere at Sundance in January, Lin unpacked the motivations and methods for making a statement with his debut.

Projektor: The film takes place after a big political and cultural shift in China, but the story reveals the ongoing effects of that era. What was the genesis for that perspective and time setting?

Jianjie Lin: When I decided to make the film, it kind of coincided with the end of the one-child policy, so it became a natural point to envision a story that’s set in this time. Also, what was interesting about the one-child policy from a practical level is that it’s a structured thing. You have this nuclear family, and now that the opportunities open up, you have a new chance of welcoming another one. What would it do to this old structure? Like many families who lived through that era, they still have a little bit of the past attached to them, but they have to look into the future.

A lot is unsaid for the two teenage characters and under the surface. What was the process of casting and directing those young performances?

For Shuo, it’s very interesting because [Sun] is the kind of guy who doesn’t do much when he’s doing the scene, but somehow he makes you want to listen to him, he holds your attention. He has this kind of innocent and mysterious look that keeps you engaged and that I found really rare. Because the nature of Shuo’s character has a lot of layers, I didn’t want to get into discussions with him about what the character means. So we mostly worked around the physicality of the character, how he behaves and dresses.

For Wei, it’s the opposite: he is very eager to show what he can do. So I gave [Lin] an opportunity to bring some of himself into the character. We had a very long rehearsal process, and he had to go through fencing training to find a point of contact between him and the character. When I wrote the script, I was a little bit afraid that Wei would come off as a dumb jock, so people wouldn’t sympathize with him. But I think Muran Lin brought a kindness and humor to the character which made him lovable.

There’s also a real ambiguity to your writing, especially with the character Shuo – we never know the secret background of this character. Was this ambiguity designed from the script stage or was it found more onset and during the edit?

There were seeds already in the script, I was trying to keep it very contained, and by removing things, I realized that it became more interesting. The script actually had a couple of scenes where he lives and there was a scene between him and the father. But I was scouting for those locations, and I was never really happy with those, and then I realized that maybe it’s because we don’t need those places, we don’t need to show those things.

The editor and I talked about capturing and maintaining that ambiguity because that’s what’ll be more interesting for me and the audience, now that they can make up their own minds about it. By removing his background the question becomes, do you believe him? That’s your own choice.

Sometimes the mundanity is broken by the sound – this repetitious, industrial sound. At one point it feels like the buzz of the fencing was being turned into music. How was the score developed and integrated into the film?

It was actually the first time I worked with music. With my short films, I was maybe too minimalistic at the time. During the script process, I was telling myself “Oh, we don’t need music.” But then I got to know this composer Toke [Brorson Odin], he made a very nice track for Winter Brothers. When I heard his stuff I was like, “Oh, this could be a direction that I want to go,” in the sense that it doesn’t feel like it’s from any culture. It’s a little bit more unidentifiable. It grows out of the every day, it fits with the big city background of the story.

I won’t ask you to explain your abstract imagery, but what were your impulses for the visual intrusions that appear throughout the movie – like looking through microscopes and highways becoming arteries?

It was in the script. I think that the starting point of those ideas was related to my background in biology, more in the sense of a point of view that I wanted to bring to the story. We are kind of analyzing them, we’re also trying to get close to them. But even when we think we’re getting close to them, are we really? Do we really know more about them?

So it was in the script, but maybe in a slightly different way, and the scenes we shot went through a long process. For example, the one with the arteries was a combination of drone shots that were shot in Hangzhou City and then combined with stock footage. There was also a discussion with the colorist, because in the beginning they were colored differently and didn’t feel right, so we tried something really bold. It became more of a coherent idea.

Are you attracted to stories of people in flux? If so, why?

I think I am, because they always bring a little bit of the past with them, and there’s something they need to reconcile. They always have this nervousness looking into the future. I think a lot of the time that’s where the drama comes from.

Brief History of a Family premiered at Sundance 2024.

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