Family Romance, LLC review – Japan-set curio from Werner Herzog

This strange but overlong docudrama explores the workers and clients of a company who rent family members

Werner Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC looks terrible. It’s a film that opens, unashamedly, with credits rendered in the Times New Roman typeface and camerawork with the amateurish feel of your dad’s ’90s home video footage. Yet, wonky production values aside, there’s still enough Herzogian strangeness to make this trip to Japan just about worthwhile, especially for those who enjoy the existential filmmaker at his most stripped back.

With the vibe of something shot during the downtime on a family trip, Herzog casts non-actor Yuichi Ishii to play himself in a film about a Tokyo-based company specialising in renting out fake family members. Ishii is hired to play father to Mahiro (Mahiro Tanimoto), whose own dad is nowhere to be found, and must routinely check in with her mother to report back on their meetings. The twist here is that Ishii actually owns a company called “Family Romance, LLC” in real life, though this isn’t a straight documentary on the subject, nor is it strictly fiction either. So what is Herzog up to?

Family Romance, LLC is slow and uneventful, with only the slightest thread of a plot running through it – a series of standalone scenes, really, loosely connected. The services offered by Ishii and his company, aside from the usual rent-a-family member, extend to all kinds of bizarre requests. After failing to experience the happiness she felt after winning the lottery years ago, one woman hires them to present her with a fake winning ticket at a random point in the future. Later, a railroad employee hires Ishii to take the fall after he makes a mistake at work. To what extent Herzog is merely taking pleasure inventing these scenarios compared to the genuine scenarios that might be undertaken by the real “Family Romance LLC” is impossible to tell (and part of the fun).

What starts out as vaguely tedious becomes more and more intriguing, especially as the relationship between Ishii and Mahiro is complicated and you get the sense that real attachments have formed (in itself an illusion, but you will be convinced). It’s too long, even at 89 minutes, but there are insights into Japan’s wish fulfilment culture that are humorous and surprising enough to hold your attention. A trip to a robot hotel, for example, makes for a fun little diversion, especially as Ishii – a calm and likeable presence throughout – marvels at a tank filled with robot fish.

Would a straight documentary about all this have made more sense? Would it have been that different, even? Given the company at the heart of this film is in the business of selling lies, is it more apt that the documentary we get about “Family Romance, LLC” is a lie veiled as some kind of truth, too? What lies are really being told, and to whom? As you try to wrap your head around it, you begin to sense that Herzog might have been onto something with this bizarre experimental film after all.

Family Romance, LLC is available on VOD platforms from 3 July.

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