Film Review: Family Romance, LLC
Written and directed by Werner Herzog. Japan/US, 2020, 89 minutes.
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Even after two decades of beguiling artistic turns, Werner Herzog’s lo-fi and seemingly tossed-off Family Romance, LLC is a fierce curveball. Shot by the director himself on prosumer video cameras, the film begins with a leery scene made even more illicit by its crude form—an as-yet-unknown man, Ishii, camps out on a bridge in Ueno Park during peak cherry blossom season, surveils the passing crowd, and eventually hones in on a preteen girl named Mahiro. In this sequence and many others that follow, Herzog’s film captures the Japanese metropolis with all the lushness of a real estate ad circa 2002: blown-out highlights, washed-out colors, razor-sharp deep focus, and a one-size-fits-all approach to lensing regardless of shot size. Coupled with a treacly piano soundtrack that drones quietly underneath the action as though it’s been forgotten on Audio Track 12 in the editing timeline, the German director’s latest summons the impression of an amateurish trifle—and even beyond the level one might expect when considering the middling critical reception of his recent work.
Context, however, is everything, and the prevailing illusion that there’s no master filmmaker manning this ship proves increasingly appropriate to the film’s uncertain and ever-shifting emotional terrain. Family Romance, LLC dramatizes the business of a Tokyo-based rent-a-family organization—it’s a film about a professional crisis that plays out like the results of a lapse in professionalism itself. Ishii is the overworked mogul of the film’s eponymous company, most recently hired by Mahiro’s mother, Miki, to act as the girl’s long-absent father. But Miki is of course just one of Family Romance’s clients: Others include a guilty railway driver who hires Ishii to take the heat from his manager for an infraction, a lonely lottery player hoping to reexperience the defining triumph of her life, and an embarrassed woman who needs an actor to stand in for her alcoholic husband at their daughter’s wedding. Herzog indulges these subplots while keeping emphasis on the developing Ishii/Mahiro relationship, though there’s no predictable cadence as to when the microscope will shift: Every scene unravels with thorough detachment, the same reliance on roomy master shots and eerily stiff blocking.
In one scene Ishii visits the Toyokawa Inari Temple, where—upon seeing rows of fox statues—he remarks to a fellow visitor, “The Fox has the power to alter reality.” The statement applies to Ishii’s business as well as it does to Herzog’s filmmaking. Family Romance, LLC’s production was a family affair (in a recent Instagram post, drone operator and sound recordist Simon Herzog reports that “my father and I worked cheek to cheek”), and direction was relayed through interpreters. Like everyone else here, Ishii is playing himself in a reenactment of his own life. And by the nature of the project Herzog is attempting to do justice to that life—but with so many obstacles impeding understanding between director and subject, we’re left to guess at where Ishii’s performance ends and his identity begins. All these layers of remove compound until the movie seems uncannily off: We’re watching a family that doesn’t understand Japanese filming fractured Japanese families.
With Family Romance, LLC, Herzog reaches for something at the edge of comprehension, perhaps inadequately expressible, about the ways that modern relationships have decomposed into sustained simulations fueled by all the outlets we have for self-performance. The film’s defining image, which comes as part of a quintessentially Herzogian detour, lingers on a mechanical fish swimming in the fish tank of a hotel lobby manned by four chilling automatons. Having started the film in a field of cherry blossoms, Herzog here completes a 180-degree turn away from nature, and all that’s left are counterfeits. The natural viewer response is discomfort—but a compelling discomfort. With limited means, Herzog has concocted a science fiction experiment on our own terra firma. [⭐⭐⭐/⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐]