A Film a Week - Family Romance, LLC.

 previously published on Asian Movie Pulse

Werner Herzog has reportedly once said that his documentary and fiction protagonists are, if not same persons, than at least closely related and inhabiting the same world. The brilliant German filmmaker has done his best to blur the lines between the two worlds, focusing on the documentary side lately in his career, but with his newest, Japan-set American-produced film “Family Romance, LLC” he has taken the most determined step in that direction. The film premiered as a special screening at the last year’s edition of Cannes before the festival tour, some niche theatrical distribution and finally hitting the streaming service Mubi this summer.

The film opens with Ishii Yuichi sitting and waiting for someone on a bench in the park before he approaches the 12-year old girl Mahiro, admitting to her that he is her long-absent father. As he says, he had left Mahiro and her mother while Mahiro was still a baby and regretted it ever since. As we learn later on, Ishii is an actor of sorts, hired by Mahiro’s mother (Miki Fujimaki) to impersonate the absent father the girl misses greatly and to report his insights to her.

It can go only weirder as Ishii, for the sake of his work, has to pose as the father of the bride at a wedding (the real father is an unreliable drunkard) or to take the blame for a professional mistake and get reprimanded by the harsh boss instead of a railroad worker. On the level of the Mahiro situation, Ishii is worried that he grows fond of her, breaking the strict rules of the trade, while he also goes on exploring the world of the completely automated establishment, like a hotel where he is attended to by several androids.

It might feel like some unnecessary exoticism that could be attributed to the so-called “Westerner’s gaze”, but all the things portrayed are actually real. More to it, Ishii Yuichi is a real-life owner of a real-life “family rental” company actually called Family Romance. The phenomenon of family-members-renting business in Japan was already exposed by the Western media and Herzog uses it as an opener for his permanent obsessions with the world of hi-tech, automatization and the need for an actual human touch. Japan, being regarded as the highly efficient, pioneering society in that aspect is just a perfect setting.

The documentary feeling of a story that is fictional in its roots is highlighted by the filmmaker’s approach in the script department: there were no fixed dialogues to be simply recited by the actors, they all had the freedom to improvise around the plot points. Herzog also assumed the position of the cinematographer, shooting in the naturalistic fashion of a keen observer.

There are imperfections throughout the film, beginning with the “LLC” part of its title, making the corporate-cultural aspect of the story a bit under-explored. Also, some scenes feel a bit stretched with their weirder moments left hanging in the air, but there is a certain poignancy in them too. Nevertheless, “Family Romance, LLC” is a film worth seeing as a comprehensive addition to the filmography of a legendary prolific filmmaker, connected to his earlier works as well as the later ones.

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