Writer and Director: Werner Herzog
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Coming across as more thoughtful and less dramatic than The Truman Show, the new film by Werner Herzog examines future cures for loneliness in the modern age. Based on a Japanese company that will rent out people to impersonate missing family members, this is a funny, if also a little creepy, portrayal of people who think nothing of secrets and lies.
The company’s founder is Yuichi Ishii, and here in Family Romance, LLC, he plays the main lead, who is also called Yuichi Ishii. This recent trend of people playing themselves can also be seen in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, showing at this year’s BFI London Film Festival too, where Jimmie Fails plays himself. In that film, Jimmie is fleshed out entirely while here Yuichi remains a cypher, and an intriguing one at that.
The film begins with Yuichi meeting a 12-year-old girl called Mahiro (played by Mahiro Tanimoto) on a bridge in Tokyo. He claims to be her father; gripped by fear and shyness she says little. He tells her that after the divorce from her mother, he married again and now has a new family. She nods hesitantly, not looking at him or the camera. It’s springtime in the city and they ease the awkwardness by taking selfies against a background of the cherry blossom in Yoyogi Park.
Their first meeting is successful, and others follow, but we soon discover that Mahiro’s mother has hired Yuichi to pretend that he is her father. Her real father died years ago, but Mahiro was never told. While this story remains the backbone to Herzog’s film, other jobs come Yuichi’s way. He becomes another father at a bride’s wedding, and, in a very sweet scene, the bearer of unexpected wealth to someone who never wins anything. Herzog also has fun with the punctuality of Japanese trains.
Filming all the scenes himself, and using non-professional actors, Herzog’s film is light, and even slight in places. Of course, there is a moral dilemma here; should they tell Mahiro the truth even though she is very happy spending time with her father and growing in confidence at school as a result? But in Herzog’s strangely distancing film, this dilemma never sits at its heart. This film is a fiction, but Herzog’s camera still is documentary mode, discreet and impartial.
Yuichi’s business (the LLC of the title stands for Limited Liability Company) will unlikely be copied in The West, but one scene has him visit a hotel where the receptionists are sleek AI robots, complete with different voices, and where robot fish swim in tanks. Perhaps, Herzog is saying, robots will take the roles of lost parents and lost lovers in the future. Would they give us all the love we need?
At ninety minutes this film could do with an edit; for instance, some of the slo-mo shots could go, and likewise the Samurai show, which we have to watch twice. But overall, this is more suited to a 60-minute TV documentary, and there is nothing wrong with that.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October