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According to its director, Werner Herzog, this surreal, strangely moving tragicomedy, based on Elif Batuman’s 2018 New Yorker article about Japan’s rent-a-family industry, is not a documentary. The scenarios are scripted and there’s no narration or acknowledgment of the gonzo film-maker’s presence. Yet Yuichi Ishii, the real-life head of Tokyo-based rental company Family Romance, portrays a version of himself. Both this metatextual casting and Herzog’s use of handheld camera emphasise the film’s hybrid quality. It might be staged, but it has a scrappy, fly-on-the-wall feel.
One of Ishii’s jobs is to perform the role of 12-year-old Mahiro’s long-absent father. The two duck into photo booths and visit a petting zoo, where they encounter a hedgehog called Sweetie Pie. Inevitably, Mahiro becomes attached. “You create illusions to make your clients feel better – you should feel good,” a colleague insists. Later, the vulnerable pre-teen’s mother invites Ishii to live with them. He awkwardly, hilariously, suggests she pay him to fake his own death instead. As Ishii reflects on the ethical limits of his work, there is the uncomfortable sense that his conundrum is real.
The genuine emotional service Ishii provides as a stand-in father is treated with solemnity, but so is the transactional reality of the performance. As Ishii himself explains: “I’m lying to Mahiro, but Mahiro is lying to me.” Such is the nature of many family relationships.
Family Romance, LLC is available on Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player, Mubi, Showcase and through modernfilms.com
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Family Romance, LLC review – Werner Herzog’s moving rent-a-family tale | Film