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Asian man with short beard and glasses, wearing a gray fedora, is being interviewed

Mysterious “Brief History of a Family” Examines One-Child Policy

Writer-director Jianjie Lin talks with a reporter at the premiere of his film “Brief History of a Family” on January 19 at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Stephen Greathouse/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Vanessa Zimmer

Wei fences, plays video games, and complains about his mother nagging him. Shuo reads a lot, is quiet, and polite to his elders.

Despite their differences, the teens become friends after an incident at school, and Shuo starts hanging out at Wei’s house. Thus begins an exploration of the dynamics of a family in post one-child China — in Brief History of a Family, which premiered January 19 at the Sundance Film Festival. The feature film is the first from China to compete in the World Cinema Drama category at the Festival.

The one-child policy, established in 1980 and ending in 2016, made it illegal for most families to have more than one child. The law was intended to curb the rapid population growth in the country. While that succeeded, one might wonder: What have been the effects of 36 years of one-child families on China? 

Writer-director Jianjie Lin takes in the tensions when parents’ ideas and strategies for a good life for their children differ from their offspring’s. That struggle exists in families all over the world. But, are the expectations, the jealousies, the alliances and rivalries, more magnified in these one-child families?

That question sits among those looming below the surface in Brief History of a Family. As Shuo — with a troubled father and from an obviously lower economic class — becomes more enmeshed in Wei’s family, relationships seem more complex, and Shuo himself seems more mysterious. Will new truths rise to the surface? 

Lin, in the post-premiere Q&A, says the idea of the film first came to him as he observed the incredible “mystery of family life.” He crafted the story with the intent that it would seem universal enough for an international audience.