Family Romance, LLC review: Werner Herzog takes an empathetic look at the rent-a-relative industry

The veteran director might be a tourist in this world, but there’s only curiosity here – no judgement 

Clarisse Loughrey@clarisselou
Wednesday 01 July 2020 13:24
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Family Romance LLC trailer

Dir: Werner Herzog. Starring: Yuichi​ Ishii, Mahiro Tanimoto, Miki Fujimaki, Takashi Nakatani, Kumi Manda. 12A cert, 89 mins.

Werner Herzog, a true doyen of film, finds inspiration in the strangest of places: prehistoric figures sketched out on cave walls (2010’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams), a contest for livestock auctioneers (1976’s How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck), and, now, a business that hires out actors to stand-in as absent family members and friends. Family Romance, LLC is a real company and based in Tokyo. For 11 years, its surrogates have sought to fill a hole in people’s hearts and social functions.

Herzog enlisted its founder, Yuichi Ishii, to play himself in a drama written by the director but based heavily on the company’s daily routines. He’s no thespian, but his mannered courteousness is revealing in itself, especially when he’s dealing with 12-year-old Mahiro (Mahiro Tanimoto). Yuichi has been hired to pose as her father, who left when she was just an infant. He’ll help her take the perfect picture of cherry blossoms and listen intently to her problems.

But he’ll also pose as the father of a bride – the real one has been banished from the ceremony for being an alcoholic. When a lottery winner craves to feel special once more, he’ll turn up on her doorstep with a giant, novelty cheque. And, when a rail worker is about to be disciplined by his superiors, Yuichi will step in and take the blame. At the end of the gig, he’ll take his leave, even if those who hired him have begged him to stay. “We are not allowed to love or be loved,” he says. It’s a little like Mary Poppins leaving behind the Banks children.

Family Romance, LLC does, at times, read like a travel diary. Perhaps that’s to be expected from a filmmaker who’s shifted so seamlessly between fiction and non-fiction – the lines have a tendency to blur. Here, he alternates between unfussy close-ups, captured on a cheap digital camera, and drone footage of the city from above. We see samurai reenactments in the park, the rows of fox statues at Toyokawa Inari Tokyo Betsuin Temple, and a hedgehog cafe. He’s interested in the city and its architecture, but also in how the people interact with that environment.

Yuichi is left to go about his daily business, in the hope audiences might find some intersection between his world and theirs. Herzog isn’t one to judge – he sees the world as filled with social deceptions. Mahiro shows her fake father a photo she claims was taken in Bali but is actually from a local beach. Elsewhere, Yuichi visits the Henn na hotel, the world’s first hotel staffed by robots, and he ponders whether his fake relatives might one day be replaced by cybernetic ones.

Family Romance, LLC feels too casual to satisfactorily delve into the topic of identity in the modern world, but it does offer up a few intriguing vignettes. At one point, Yuichi tries out coffins, having been hired to play a body in an open-casket funeral. He’s told that there are many who like to experience their own memorials and play at “being dead without dying”. Herzog might be a tourist in this world, but he remains one of cinema’s great empaths – there is curiosity here, but no judgement.

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