'Family Romance, LLC': Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A minor but tasty bit of mochi from Werner Herzog.

The Japan-set latest from Werner Herzog revolves around a man who is hired to impersonate the absent father of a young girl.

Having slipped dexterously between fiction and documentary formats through his entire career, now in its second half-century, Werner Herzog evinces little interest in the boundaries between the two in Family Romance, LLC. Officially, this is a scripted fictional tale, about an engaging young man in Tokyo hired to be something between a counselor and best friend to people in need of either. But if average people were to watch even a few minutes of it, they would immediately assume it to be a documentary due to its style and man-on-the-street format. How Herzog zig-zags between both forms to suit his purposes represents the main point of interest for the film, in which genuine Herzogian stuff kicks in only gradually during the second half.

It’s cherry blossom season in Tokyo and many people are out enjoying the day at the vast Yoyogi Park. But not in such a good mood is an 11- or 12-year-old girl who has no relationship with her father. This is where Yuichi Ishii comes in. Glib and open by Japanese standards, the appealing thirtysomething man tries different approaches to get the girl to open up, asks her questions and, up to a point, succeeds in engaging her in a way that her mother, who’s also present, evidently cannot.

With the camera roving about, it feels as though we’re watching some kind of reality show with Yuichi as the host. The way it’s described, though, is that Yuichi is a “rental” father engaged by the mother, as apparently sometimes happens for weddings and other important events in a child’s life. At various points, the father is variously described as having another family or being an alcoholic or an epileptic.

Apart from a timeout for a wild samurai fight game in the park among a group of boys, Yuichi keeps the conversation going with the girl, who clearly has a tough road ahead of her. Especially due to the soft, borderline treacly score, however, you’d never guess at this point that you were watching a Werner Herzog film.

Other odd situations invite the intervention of the ever-obliging Yuichi, all of which further the impression that we’re watching a TV show: a young girl of partial African heritage feels slighted by all her peers because of her dark skin; a plain middle-aged woman says that winning $180,000 in a lottery is the first good thing that’s ever happened to her in her life; and Yuichi agrees to take the blame for an incident in which a shamed worker has caused the always-prompt fast train be off its schedule by a few seconds. Surrogate figures appear to be a big thing in Japan.

By Herzogian standards, these are mild aberrations, none of them particularly worthy of the sustained attention of one of the creative world’s foremost surveyors of human extremes and peculiarities. In one instance, he’s forced to go beyond the human, at a hotel staffed by extremely polite robots. There’s even a robotic fish swimming in an aquarium.

However, just when it looks as though the pic is destined to remain a compendium of “quirks and oddities of the Japanese,” it begins to take on some unexpected weight. This is occasioned by Yuichi, whose facade of effervescent and resourceful TV personality gradually becomes dramatized and opened up in a way more associated with fiction than with reality shows; Yuichi becomes a “character,” and while the film doesn’t go deep, it takes on a dimension that you don’t see coming for at least an hour.

The development is a surprise and a relief in the wake of what has hitherto seemed like a collection of weird and variously telling anecdotes about Japanese eccentricities, as well as the role Yuichi has played in the lives of the people he’s encountered as a media host and life interventionist.

This is minor Herzog, to be sure, but alternately amusing and disarming nonetheless. It also makes an implicit request: Analyst, analyze yourself.

Production company: Skellig Rock
With: Yuichi Ishii, Mahiro Tamimoto
Director-screenwriter: Werner Herzog
Producer: Roc Morin
Editor: Sean Scannell
Music: Ernst Reijseger
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screening)

 

89 minutes