Family Romance, LLC. (3 stars)

Family Romance, LLC.

Fact and fiction fuse in this enjoyable but shamelessly slight offering from Werner Herzog

Admired as both a narrative filmmaker and documentarian, the great Werner Herzog proffers a characteristically quirky, if emphatically slight piece of cinema that somehow fuses the two. He takes a fabricated approach to a real-life phenomenon – the Tokyo-based business of the title, which rents actors as stand-ins for family and friends – in a film that's shot and staged like a documentary. To further confuse matters, Family Romance creator Yuichi Ishii, who set up the agency in 2009, plays himself in scripted scenes.

This mischievous film dives straight into the deceit; when we meet Yuichi he's already immersed in a character, playing the estranged father of 12-year-old Mahiro (Mahiro Tanimoto) who is meeting the man she assumes to be her dad for the first time in a decade. In the subsequent scene, the actor reports back to her mother (Miki Fujimaki) in an unnervingly transactional way.

As Yuichi delivers the dad of Mahiro's dreams at parks, funfairs and on scenic strolls, it's never quite clear whether she fully buys the act. In between, we get a sense of the scope and surrealness of the agency's requests – which range from Yuichi being hired to take the blame for a rail worker's error, to being asked to recreate the life-changing moment of a lonely lottery winner (poignant work from Ryoko Sugimachi).

Family Romance, LLC. is very watchable with its gentle humour and myriad eccentric charms. Although the business in question undoubtedly makes for an interesting and entertaining subject, Herzog never really drills down into the morality and sadness behind its practices, only touching on this superficiality, with Yuichi's 'authentic' interactions often indistinguishable from his acting gigs.

The non-professional performers are, for the most part, believable enough, but they are unable to bring much depth to scenes which should carry more emotional weight. 'At Family Romance we are not allowed to love or be loved,' Yuichi explains to Mahiro's mum, yet it's a moment that lacks impact. Instead, Herzog holds us at an unmistakable remove, showing an appreciation for the unique beauty of the surroundings and fascination and affection for the idiosyncrasies of Japanese culture – going so far as to shoehorn in things like a hedgehog café and robot hotel. The result is a film that's more inclined toward curiosity than compassion.

Available to watch on demand and via Modern Films from Fri 3 Jul.

Family Romance, LLC

  • 3 stars
  • 2019
  • US
  • 1h 29min
  • Directed by: Werner Herzog
  • Cast: Mahiro Tanimoto, Ishii Yuichi

A man is hired to impersonate the missing father of a young girl.