FAMILY ROMANCE, LLC (directed by Werner Herzog, 89 minutes, USA, 2020)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Family Romance, LLC, which hit VOD last week, is the latest by Werner Herzog and has the director taking a fictional narrative that detours into documentary-like style vignettes. The film, which was shot in Japan with Japanese dialog, is inspired by a very real business where you can rent stand-in family members for funerals or weddings or various other life events. Family Romance, LLC focuses on Ishii Yuichi, who at the the start of the film is hired to play the long lost father of a 12-year-old girl named Mahiro, who has no idea her mother hired the man to play the part. That relationship is the primary throughline of the film’s “fictional” story as Ishii makes a few detours along the way into documentary-style interviews with the principal players of other virtual-life ventures. We see Ishii stopping at a Japanese Robot Hotel and interviewing the proprietor, and in another segment he stops at a funeral home which rents time in a coffin to the living.
Strangely the film feels like Herzog’s take on the mumble-core, with improvisational dialog combined with a freewheeling editing style that feels as if the scenes just fall into one another. With such a dialog -heavy film, I was surprised to learn that Herzog didn’t speak a lick of Japanese, and that he also shot the entire film himself using a handheld camera. Against the backdrop of noisy public spaces, like busy parks or teeming cafes, he masterfully carves out these intimate moments between a “father” and his painfully shy 12 year-old daughter. Despite the fact that the entire cast is made up of non-actors and this works amazingly well, yet another meta layer of authenticity to the film. The line between what is real and what gets blurrier once you read a bit about the film and discover that the actor who plays Ishii Yuichi is actually named Ishii Yuichi and he owns an IRL business called Family Romance that offers the same virtual services showcased in the film.
Herzog isn’t simply satisfied in the superficial novelty of his subject matter, but instead digs deep into the emotional core of the principals while exploring philosophical questions such as what makes a family family and pulling back the curtain on the complications that can arise from a service like this. Ishii spends a lot of time “in character” pondering the confusing parameters of his identity and the morality of his life choices and how they affect those that are both aware and unaware of his services. Thanks to the amatuer cast, this doesn’t come off nearly as pretentious as it sounds on paper. Instead Family Romance, LLC is filled with a rare authenticity that elicits empathy for its lonely cast of characters as they arrange a meeting with Ishii to fulfill one desperate need or another. To then see these requests fulfilled as Ishii selflessly gives himself over to whatever the situation requires, always doing what’s best for his client rather than what is best for himself, only endears him to the audience all the more.