Family Romance LLC (2019) review

This incredible Werner Herzog drama is a feature film that feels like a documentary – it’s not portrayed as such, but the rawness and truth that is on display throughout constantly have you questioning if this is real or not. If you are familiar with any of Herzog’s previous work then this will not be a surprise to you – think of this as a counterpoint to the also brilliant Grizzly Man, a documentary that many still think must be a work of fiction.

Family Romance LLC begins with a suited man waiting for someone on a bridge in Tokyo. We see a nervous young girl walk past him in the crowd a few times, surreptitiously taking his photograph as she does so. When she finally plucks up the courage to approach him, we learn through their dialogue that the 12 year old girl, Mahiro, believes him to be her estranged father who left when she was 16 months old and hasn’t been seen since. We learn that the man, Ishii, is the owner of the company Family Romance and has been paid by Mahiro’s mother to play the part of her long-absent father. This sets up the main strand of the movie, where the boundaries and ethics of such an arrangement are explored and examined.

The main story of the growing relationship between our 3 primary characters is interspersed with other scenarios where Family Romance LLC are providing services to their clients, ranging from a surrogate father-of-the-bride to a fake paparazzi pack for an aspiring internet personality. These vignettes build a picture of a man and a company blurring the lines of reality that, although each one is performing a positive act for the client, begins to demand more from Ishii than he is prepared to give.

The production and casting for this unique film is so quintessentially Herzogian – Family Romance is a real company in Japan, who provide people to perform the duties of absent friends and family members and Ishii is the real owner of this company. The film was shot guerrilla-style by Herzog himself and this adds to the documentary-like atmosphere. The actors playing the parts of Family Romance actors are sourced from the real Family Romance company. There is a scene set on a railway platform that features a bullet train – this is 70 seconds long, and as filming is banned there it was done in one take, and as soon as the action was complete the actors and cameraman (Herzog of course) had to split up to avoid the approaching security guards.

I really enjoyed this film. It looks at how we commoditise loneliness, loss and desire but with no judgement – the contract between the (adult) customers of Family Romance LLC and the company is clearly defined and the boundaries are definitively expressed at one point in the film. What we have is a contemplative gem of a movie that will stay with me for a long time. A easy to decide 9 on the Skelpometer.

Family Romance LLC is available to rent on MUBI

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