China’s Lin Jianjie Debuts Genre-Fluid ‘Brief History of a Family’ at Sundance: ‘Chinese Middle Classes Are Still New to This Identity’ (EXCLUSIVE)

First-time mainland Chinese director Lin Jianjie (aka JJ Lin) makes a splash this weekend with the premiere of his “Brief History of a Family.”

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Asking questions about family in the era since the end of China’s ‘One Child Policy,’ while also borrowing genre tropes such as the idea of the intruder and blood, it is a polished and ultra-modern fable that sees a teenage schoolboy ingratiate himself into another boy’s family.

Variety spoke to biologist-turned-filmmaker Lin on the eve of his Sundance debut.

How did you get from zero to making your first feature?

[After graduating in biology] I did two short films at film school. I went to Tisch Asia, which had a campus in Singapore. We also had an exchange program with Tisch in New York. At school, you may have a lot of ideas, but not all stay with you. This one did. Every once in a while, I went back to the idea and realized something new about it. Slowly it took shape.

Did you use the project market and labs system that seems increasingly common in Asia these days?

It took a few years. In the beginning, I took to this idea to the Talents Tokyo lab, pitched it and got quite good feedback. Then I put it aside, to try to develop it a little bit more. And in 2018 when I decided to make my first feature, we participated in a couple of other labs, including Torino and the project market in Shanghai. After that, it was a long process of rewriting and getting financing.

How did it become a China-Denmark-Qatar co-production?

The Danish side was thanks to the Torino Lab. My Danish co producer Rikke Tambo Anderson also attended the lab that year. We figured it would be a good idea because Denmark has a minority production scheme.

Getting all the money from China is pretty difficult. I thought maybe it’d be nice to do a co-production, both on the financial level and also because I enjoy working with teams from creative all over the world. It’s the first Danish-Chinese coproduction supported by this scheme.

Does that mean that the Qatar portion is a purely a financial involvement?

No, its both financial and creative. Qatar has a post-production fund and grants from the Doha Film Institute. We were lacking some post-production money, so I applied and we got funding to finish the film.

They also invited us to this Qumra event, where we met our international sales agent [Germany’s Films Boutique]. They also gave us some advice on the period after post-production and before the film is out. How to strategize and promote the film.

What is the budget?

The budget is $1.5 million. That’s actually a tricky number actually to pull off because in China with the current financial situations, you either make something very, very cheap, or if you’re a very established director, you can make something much bigger.

What were your genre intentions?

I think that’s very interesting, because that’s something we were building throughout the process. I didn’t think of a genre when I was writing a script. In the beginning, it was very thriller-like. But during the pre-production, the shooting and the editing, I worked more with my DOP and discarded many genre notions, instead looking more at the interactions between the characters and how to bring life to the scenes. So, the tone is a little bit ambiguous. It’s a little bit shifting.

Sometimes the tone come from the character, especially Yan Shuo’s character, because he is a little bit difficult to define. The idea of an outsider coming to a family lends itself to the thriller genre. But then there’s also something of a mystery we try to create around him. The actor he stresses it. He has a kind of process that makes you want to know more about him. And, also, there is a little bit of a supernatural element. Even during the location scouting, we try to make it not too realistic.

Chinese director Lin Jianjie (aka JJ Lin)
Chinese director Lin Jianjie (aka JJ Lin) “Brief History of a Family”

Where was it filmed?

It was filmed in a few different cities in China. I wanted to capture a sense of modern China, but without giving away where. A lot of Chinese films tell you that it is set in a specific town. A lot shoot in a dialect. But I wanted them to speak perfect, standard Chinese and for people watching to think of contemporary China in general. This is also a side of China that’s not really seen much on an international level.
We shot in Chengdu, we shot in Hangzhou and we have a couple of shots in Beijing.

What are the points you were trying to make about modern China, and the middle classes especially?

The past decades have seen the rise of the new middle class in China. They actually are a lot like the Western middle class, but they are still quite new to this identity.

In that search for meaning all these questions pop out: how do you raise your kids? Do you let them be who they want to be, or do you put a lot of what you want into their education? How to deal with financial affluence? Now post the one-child policy things are different again. For a very long time the family structures were set. Now you have a change in the policy. How does that impact a family who has been through the previous era?

Why choose such an ambiguous ending?

A lot of films want a clear ending or message. For me, [the ambiguity] came from two places. One is because I wanted to give the audience more freedom to make up their own theory.

Also, it came from Yan Shuo’s character. Because the more I worked with the actor [Sun Xilun] and as we went through shooting and editing, the more I realized that he has to be a character that is a little bit out of this world. His fate has to be very different.

I had a different ending written and I shot that ending as well. But I went with this one because this is richer.

How did your multinational crew influence the look and the feel of the movie?

The DOP Zhang Jiahao is Chinese and this was his first feature. We had many cinephile discussions. But in the end, I told him to just forget about these references. Let’s go on set and look at the material at hand. Then we didn’t talk in the term of genre, but in terms of these characters and their interactions and how to portray those. That may also have led to the ambiguity of the genre.

The editor [Denmark’s Per K. Kirkegaard] was suggested to me by the Danish producer. He had done a lot of documentaries before and brought this very good sense of characters’ emotions and story arc.
I also had a Danish composer [Toke Brorson Odin] whose film ‘Winter Brothers’ I’d seen. And I thought that industrial kind of sound space would be really interesting for my film.

After the film’s debut in Sundance and Berlin’s Panorama section, are you planning a theatrical release in China?

We have our ‘Dragon Seal’ [approval from Chinese authorities] and are planning a theatrical release, probably in the second half of the year. It hasn’t been set yet because we want to go further with its festival run.

What direction do you see the Chinese film industry taking at the moment?

Production was hard hit during COVID. And now finance is quite hard. That may also be partially due to COVID. Investors are looking more at commercial films.

And it is becoming more important for companies like Maoyan and Taopiaopiao [which have expanded from ticket sales operations into production, investment and distribution] to be involved at some point – especially for distribution and especially for the promotion of commercial films.

But if you’re making an arthouse film, you’re not really in the same field. There’s also a growing number of designated theatres for art house titles. And China is slowly building a market for these kinds of films.

What is next for you after this film?

I am keeping my options open.

"Brief History of a Family"
“Brief History of a Family”

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