Family Romance, LLC (USA/Japan 2019)

What is the price of romance? What is it worth to those who are selling it, and those who are buying it? That is the central question in Werner Herzog’s latest film, Family Romance, LLC, a genre-bending piece about the Japanese “rent-a-relative” industry. An experimental blend of documentary and fiction film-making, Herzog’s latest is a strange and fascinating beast that explores a fundamental aspect of the human psyche through unconventional means.

Family Romance, LLC centers are Yuichi Ishii and his rather peculiar business, the titular “Family Romance” which lends actors as friends and family members for a price. You need father figure at your wedding; a friend to go to temple with; a complacent co-worker to take the blame? “Family Romance” is there for you, ready to fill whatever gap is present in your life – and more. Recently, Ishii has taken a bigger and more difficult job: he has been hired to pose as the father of Mahiro (Mahiro Tanimoto), a 12-year old girl whose real father disappeared a long time ago. It’s clear that Mahiro is not in on the scheme as the whole thing has been orchestrated by her mother. Nevertheless, as the two spend more time together, Mahiro grows fonder of Ishii and wants to spend more and more time with him. So does her mother (Miki Fujimaki), who decides it might not be such a bad idea if she turned the act into reality and made Ishii her husband. In all this, Ishii grows more pensive and concerned, worrying that the ruse may have gone too far.

In over 50 years of film making, Werner Herzog has excelled in both fiction and documentary films, often making it a point to blend the lines between the two. Indeed, the director has admitted that he will readily stage scenes or rehearse lines with his documentary subjects if it makes a better story, or a better film. He doesn’t really make documentaries, only fiction films with varying degrees of reality. Family Romance, LLC is a continuation of the same tradition, but from the other side of the dividing line. Herzog has taken a fictional story – penned by himself, though with ample improvisation from the actors – and presents it in a documentary-like format. The unpolished and awkward dialogue, the long pauses, the freely meandering camerawork – all elements that don’t exactly belong in a fiction film, yet Herzog finds a way to make them work. Rather than try to seamlessly blend them, Herzog allows the two styles to class and takes advantage of the ensuing confusion to make his point. Just like Ishii is entangled in fake relationships that seem all too real, so must the audience question the reality of their own viewing experience. All film is entrenched in artifice, and Family Romance, LLC highlights the ease with which we are willing to buy the artifice and believe it is real.

“At Family Romance, we are not allowed to love or be loved,” says Ishii towards the end of the film, cementing one of its most poignant contradictions. While Ishii’s company exists to provide love to its customers, he himself seems unable to find one – and when he does, he can’t ethically commit to it. The topic is fresh, yet the theme is unquestionably Herzogian. Much like the director’s most seminal films, like Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) or Fitzcarraldo (1982), Family Romance, LLC lays bare an essential aspect of the human folly and shows how vulnerable we can be without it. By fulfilling everyone else’s need for companionship, Ishii becomes painfully aware of the pain and beauty that such a need simultaneously brings.

Ishii’s escapades in the film are occasionally interrupted by the camera’s meandering detours around Tokyo. Scattered shots of the city or the Yoyogi park populate the film, accompanied by Ernst Reijseger’s wonderfully poetic score. The score presents another interesting contrast between its lyrical nature and the highly stilted/naturalistic performances of the actors – another element that brings forth the film’s theme into a meta-textual context. Another layer of artifice the audience must delve through.

Family Romance, LLC is a return to form for Werner Herzog, at least as far as his purely fictional output film is concerned, which has been rather thin in the 21st century. While it won’t displace the likes of Aguirre from their well-deserved pedestal, Family Romance, LLC is a thought-provoking and engaging drama, all-in-all a welcome addition into the director’s oeuvre.

Family Romance, LLC is currently on UK virtual cinema release from Modern Films.