Pick of the Week: Family Romance LLC
Romance is a business. Family, friends, followers. All available for hire. A man is hired to impersonate the missing father of a twelve year old girl by her mother. A fascinating exploration of human connection, Family Romance, LLC sees Werner Herzog following an unconventional path to existentialism in Japan.
Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D ends with the titular character admitting ‘I am a slut’. He doesn’t mean the word as the sexist slur we know, but one that captures his need for emotional rampart: he’s a slut for people who can be his emotional punching bags.
Family Romance, LLC directed by the German director Werner Herzog (Aguirre, The Wrath of God; Grizzly Man) is a more sensitive portrayal of this intrinsically human need for people as emotional anchors. The film, equal parts documentary and fiction, is named after a real company based in Japan that rents out actors to take on any role required, as per their client's wishes. They can provide you with a friend, a substitute for work, and even a father to walk you down the aisle; a trained and talented human stranger to satisfy all your emotional needs and cravings. A sense of companionship or a yearning to be heard, to be understood, or a feeling of wholesomeness are now all available for purchase, in the shape of a person willing to be whoever you want them to be. Against this stranger than fiction reality, Family Romance LLC explores the value of interpersonal relationships and asks some tough but pertinent existential questions - what makes us connect with other people? What is the meaning of authenticity in connection? What is the value of the institution of family if we can purchase ‘stand ins’ to fulfil certain relations?
The film isn’t a typical commentary on modern day relationships. Despite its voyeuristic gaze, it isn’t one that judges those who opt for unconventional (to say the least) means of interacting with others, and with their own emotions. In fact as observed by the Director himself “everything in life is a performance and yet the authenticity of the emotions is always there”. There is a wonderful scene which translates this observation on screen. An old woman wants to relive a winning moment from her youth with the help of actors at Family Romance. Her reason for re-enacting this whole moment is simple, she wants to experience that special moment again. It’s an incredibly eccentric and nostalgic scene, but there is also a childish sweetness to it, brought out by the innocent and unadulterated motivations of the woman; she just wants to feel that forgotten happiness one more time.
Family Romance LLC begins with Yuichi Ishii, actor and real life proprietor of the company, meeting Mahiro, the twelve year old whose mother has hired Ishii to pose as her father. In the course of the film, Mahiro overcomes her shyness and starts confiding in him. She begins to value him as her father and it is this intensely emotional response from Mahiro that begins to unsettle Yuichi Ishii. Until then, he has never felt perturbed about the well being of a client. But on realising how much his ‘daughter’ is starting to value, and even ‘love’ him, Ishii begins to question the foundations of his business and what role, if any, love plays in its semantics. It is in expressing this unnerving space in which Ishii finds himself, that Herzog’s craft comes alive and his signature style of filmmaking feels effortlessly matched to capture the dystopian situation the director has found himself in. In an exclusive Q&A after MUBI’s preview screening of the film, Herzog admits to having shot Family Romance LLC very much on the fly. Ishii helped recruit actors from within his agency and everything thereafter in the film is a performance, shot by Herzog himself with close, curious but unobtrusive camera work. Yet there is a gentle honesty that simmers throughout, which turns Ishii’s very uncomfortable and bizarre ethical quandary - of his work essentially making interpersonal relations a commodity - into a genuinely intimate and relatable film.
Undoubtedly it also questions the very sanctity of the institution of family. Ishii in one of his most agitated moments in the film tells his friend that he’s wondering if his own family is just a bunch of actors pretending to be his family. It makes you wonder why he said that. Surely, as an actor of such intimate method, he must know the difference between a performance and a (relative) reality. Perhaps he felt the same kind of bond with Mahiro as he did with his own family, blurring the lines between performance and authenticity, client and kin. Are families as indispensable as we think then? What is the worth or validity of generations of a family bound by blood and history, if people have the capability of bonding with complete strangers, just like family?
Perhaps when people allow themselves to be vulnerable, a connection is inevitable. Driving home this disposition is the film’s documentary-like feel, shot in actual locations as opposed to sets. Manoeuvring his way through the crowded streets of Tokyo, incorporating quintessentially Japanese curiosities - from a 70 second scene shot guerrilla style on a bullet train platform, and a visit to a Japanese oracle, to a ‘Robot Hotel’ with mechanical fish in its tank, Herzog has embedded his made up plot points in a cultural landscape that feels as authentic as it is enchanting, blurring further the lines between the real and the fictitious.
Initially, it feels ironic that so much effort has been made to keep the cinematography raw and realistic for a movie about staged relations, but it eventually makes perfect sense. The emotions of the characters; the happiness of finding a friend, or the comfort of being with a father is utterly raw despite the antecedent factors. There are some aerial shots of the city which do not capture the typical greenery or cherry blossom trees of Japan but rather a landscape of buildings against a smoky, grey sky. By looking at these shots alone one wouldn’t be able to tell the city in which the film unfolds, it could be any modern metro; London, New York or Tokyo. A fitting visual metaphor, because the ‘performance’ of our lives - the everyday play acting we engage in to make sense of the relationships we have and the ones we aspire for, isn’t unique to any one country or city but rather a symbol of our time, which despite its cacophony of connectedness, the whimsical German auteur calls “the century of existential solitudes.” Two decades in, we are rather inclined to agree with him.
Werner Herzog is a German film director, screenwriter, author, actor, and opera director. Herzog is a figure of the New German Cinema. His films often feature ambitious protagonists with impossible dreams, people with unique talents in obscure fields, or individuals who are in conflict with nature. He has produced, written, and directed more than sixty feature films and documentaries, such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Nosferatu the Vampyre, Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.