Wednesday 7 October 2020

Streaming on MUBI - Peter Hourigan is intrigued by Werner Herzog's FAMILY ROMANCE LLC (USA, 2019)


A short time back, I came across a podcast titled Really Long Distance about a telephone booth in a field near the sea and unconnected to anything. It had been placed in this somewhat remote spot near where the 2011 Japanese tsunami had come ashore. Quietly, it became almost crowded with people making “calls” to family members and other loved ones who had vanished in the tsunami. This rather speaks of a great human need to feel connected, in some way, to people who are important in our lives. 

Werner Herzog references this telephone in his new film, Family Romance LLC. This is based around a Japanese agency that he heard about, that arranges surrogates for missing family members – a father unable to be present at his daughter’s wedding, a father for a 12 year old girl whose ‘real’ father disappeared from her life when was still a baby, even a corpse to be present in a coffin for a funeral. Or paparazzi so the client can feel important. I was interested to learn that this family members for rent does exist in Japan. There is a story about it in  The New Yorker.

All potentially quirky or potentially cloying sentimentality for a movie. But I found Family Romance LLC  so much more than this. In its presentation on MUBI, Herzog provides a brief introduction, and there is a Q & A afterwards. He takes pains to point out that it is an acted drama, not a documentary though he is clearly quite pleased that some critics have said that it must be one. What we have is a marvellously complex web with reality and imagination almost indistinguishable woven together. 

In preparing his film Herzog contacted one of these companies, Family Romance, and talked with one of the company’s principals. Eventually Herzog felt the right people to play some of ‘workers’ in this business were the real people themselves. So, you’re getting into a situation where you have the real people playing themselves in situations devised by Herzog. There is Ishii, the actor playing the real Ishii playing as a father. Which is the real Ishii? If there is one. 

It could have been merely an enjoyable collection of situations watching the interplay between a lonely person and an actor pretending to be a family member. But you can’t quite forget that this self-deluding meeting is paid for by the ‘client’ and it’s important to them to believe it even when they know it’s not real. Fiction more real than reality? 

But Herzog is aware that these important, healing role play may have dangers. What if situations go a bit too far? Can the client be hurt, especially if the situation becomes too real? Will the surrogate suddenly be in a potentially compromising situation or be hurt emotionally? Herzog recognition of this is an important dimension in giving the film its sense of roundness. 

In the accompanying Q & A Herzog talks about identifying the 21stCentury as potentially the century of solitude, despite (or perhaps of) the mobile devices, emails, chatrooms that have taken over much of our communication, leaving many people more connected but more alone.  Family Romance LLC  shares with us, in a positive way how some people are dealing with this 21stcentury emotion.  

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