May 18, 2019
Werner Herzog has taken a strange reality – the Japanese company which hires out stand-in Friends and relatives – and pointlessly subverted it further
Family Romance, LLC review – Herzogs fake family film is fascinating but fishy
Werner Herzog has come to Cannes with a stranger-than-fiction piece of work, a lo-fi headscratcher shot on video around tourist locations in Tokyo. Its pure oddness derives from its reality. This is Herzog’s enigmatic drama-documentarised version of a real phenomenon in Japan: a company called Family Romance LLC (that is: Limited Liability Company) which for 11 years has specialised in loaning out actors to be therapeutic-surrogate figures: imitation friends or family members for those who can’t bear the absence of these people in their lives. They are required to go through the motions at parties, weddings, funerals, and even private situations: platonic escorts for the soul. You might compare this to Yorgos Lanthimos’s Alps (2011) which had a comparable idea. Herzog has got the real-life proprietor of this firm, Ishii Yuchii, to play himself in scenarios Herzog has scripted, as the Family Romance LLC chief taking on delicate “substitute” jobs in various contexts: tragic, comic, tragicomic and just bizarre. The most extraordinary is a special assignment in which a divorced woman hires him to impersonate her ex-husband and befriend her troubled 12-year-old daughter (who was only a baby when her parents broke up and so has no idea what the real dad looks like) and pump her for information about her feelings, her attitude to her mum etc.And if that wasn’t creepy enough, this fake dad and real daughter befriend a sad toddler in the park - the poor little thing had been bullied by other kids - and just take her off for a sightseeing trip around Tokyo. Without any mention of her presumably frantic parents.Of course, there are sillier and more surreal jobs undertaken by Ichii. At one stage, he prepares to impersonate a dead body in an open coffin at a funeral, for those mourners who want the catharsis that a closed casket can’t provide, and can be relied upon not to look too closely at the deceased.At another stage, he has to impersonate a railway station employee who will take the blame for letting the train depart at the wrong time, and must now bow with shame before the furious supervisor while the real culprit, who has hired Family Romance, grins at the knowledge he has got away with it. (In real life, Family Romance LLC would surely not attempt such an obviously illegal and easily detectable dodge.) But that fake ex-husband role is the centre of the movie. In a more conventional fictional drama, his imposture would from the outset be shown as sinister, predatory, morally bankrupt. But this is not obviously the case here: Ichii is not signposted as the bad guy by any means. Perhaps this is how he was induced to take part.It could well be that Herzog is fascinated by the Family Romance LLC phenomenon because it is a symptom of our atomised, lonely society. Or perhaps because it offers us an insight into an uncomfortable truth: the institution of family has always been a matter of role-playing and fakery.Either way: did Ichii Yuchii quite realise that his persona would be so questionable? There is incidentally another possibility: that Family Romance LLC always has had a touch of fiction about it, that its proprietor mischievously exaggerated the size of his firm - and the size of the social issue - for publicity, and that this film is another great bit of PR for him. A strange, faintly frustrating but diverting film.
•Family Romance screened at the Cannes film festival.
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