Screened out of competition at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival, Werner Herzog’s Japanese-language FAMILY ROMANCE, LLC focuses on a firm that specialises in providing actors to perform as stand-in family members or friends for clients.
Over the course of the film, we are introduced to around half a dozen customers who have hired out the company’s services for different scenarios: one family hires a ‘father’ for a bride’s wedding as a replacement for her own father, who suffers from alcoholism; an aspiring social media influencer hires a pack of men to pose as paparazzi to augment her profile; the mother of a 12-year-old girl hires the company to provide a stand-in for her daughter’s missing father; families hire actors to play deceased relatives in open-casket funerals, and so on.
While the central conceit is typically Herzogian in its embrace of the poetic-surreal, generically the film marks something of a departure from the director’s previous work, with a distanced observational style that sits somewhat uncomfortably between drama and documentary. Filmed quickly during a stopover in Japan and composed as a series of vignettes, scenes are largely scripted and performed by a cast of non-professional actors, including the company’s director Yuichi—played by Yuichi Ishii, who happens to work for an agency called Family Romance in real life—and 12-year-old Mahiro Tanimoto.
The film’s structure encourages a somewhat dilatory pace, following Yuichi from role to role. The absence of the filmmaker’s trademark voiceover, together with the emotionally-restrained performances, offer little in the way of comment or perspective on the subject matter, imparting a tone that is somewhat hard to pin down. Toward the end, the film does venture a tentative perspective on its material, when one of Yuichi’s clients suggests that he should move in with the family in order to play Mahiro’s father full time.
At this moment, when the line between simulation and reality is strained, the film begins to truly wrestle with the moral complexities of the business and with a society that seems to privilege corporate solutions over more meaningful familial or social relationships. To Herzog’s credit, the film never feels exploitative of its subjects, instead letting the material speak for itself. Overall, while the nature of the material makes for compelling viewing, the film’s tonal ambiguities, its rough-and-ready shooting style, and an overall lack of structural clarity leave the viewer wondering what to make of it all.