BRIEF HISTORY OF A FAMILY (Sydney FF 2024) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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There’s a far too rare feeling of watching a movie and knowing, as it unfolds before you, that you are seeing something truly special. A kind of conscious knowledge that what you are experiencing is awe, and that – regardless of where the journey might end – the feeling of simply watching it all play out is worthwhile enough. On paper, we’ve seen variants of Brief History of a Family before, with the elegant radicalism of Bong-Joon Ho’s Parasite at one end of the spectrum and the thunderingly pompous stupidity of Saltburn at the other. But with quiet, confident charm, Lin Jianjie in his debut feature expands in his own unique way this now-fairly familiar battle of the classes meets quasi home invasion scenario in a uniquely Chinese context.

Shuo (Xilun Sun) is a nervous, shy loner, and when he is injured at school by lumberheaded jock Wei (Muran Lin), the latter casually invites him home to his middle-class family’s opulent apartment for dinner. Wei’s parents (Ke-Yu Guo and Feng Zu) are immediately charmed by Shuo who, so different from their own son, enjoys spending time with them and shows a genuine interest in their lives. Wei at first welcomes Shuo’s presence, feeling that he is a good distraction that stops his parents from annoying him. But as the shocking circumstances of Shuo’s home life become apparent, Wei’s parents begin to see him as much more than merely their son’s friend.

While almost clinical in tone, there is a throbbing undercurrent in Brief History of a Family that silently grants this family drama the tonal energy of a thriller, reaching almost Hanekeian heights in some key moments. But the film is simultaneously also distinctly Chinese; while mentioned in passing, the spectre of the country’s one child policy that ran from 1979 to 2015 to help curb a population explosion hangs heavily over it, a kind of omnipresent geopolitical factor that adds an extra layer of tragedy to this vision of an imperfect family’s search for perfection. It might not have the climactic whistles and bells of Parasite or Saltburn, but in this instance anything else would feel almost dishonest; this is a careful, considered film of enormous intelligence and emotional resonance.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).