MUBI is hosting a free exclusive online premiere of Werner Herzog’s latest film Family Romance, LLC on July 3. The film is free to view on the streaming platform in the U.S., the U.K., and more than 150 countries, in partnership with Film Constellation. Much like Pablo Larrain’s Ema in May, Herzog’s film will only be free to view for 24 hours. Herzog will introduce his film and the virtual premiere will conclude with an exclusive 15-minute interview.
Known for his raw, die-hard filmmaking with films such as Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Fitzcaraldo, or Rescue Dawn, and his beautiful documentary work with his unforgettable narrating voice such as Into the Inferno or Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the German director Werner Herzog will also be familiar to Star Wars fans after he starred in the Disney series The Mandolarian.
His newest film, Family Romance, LLC, which Herzog wrote, directed and shot, sways between documentary and fiction, and will make you question what is real and what is fake. Set in Japan, Herzog’s film tells the story of a Tokyo-based company.
Family Romance, LLC opens in a Japanese park where cherry trees are in blossom. A man, dressed in a grey suit, waits. A teenage girl with horns on her black hoody walks past him several times, ending up taking pictures of him with her phone. Her name is Mahiro, and the man presents himself to her as her father.
They go see the cherry blossoms, and he tells her the reasons why he left her and her mother when she was just a baby. They take pictures of each other among the cherry blossoms. Mahiro remains silent and shy, but slowly starts to open up.
This isn’t a film about a father and daughter reunited and getting to know each other. As the next sequence reveals, the man’s name is Mr Ishii. He was hired by Mahiro’s mother to play the part of her estranged father. Ishii runs a company called “Family Romance” that provides the service of hiring someone to stand in for a family member or a friend. The film shows the range of different jobs he is hired to do. One customer thus asks him to surprise her with a lottery winning, while another hires Ishii to take the blame for a mistake made at work.
The film’s main interest, however, is the relationship that grows between Ishii and Mahiro, as their meetings continue. The moments that Herzog captures as Mahiro looks upon Ishii, or when she asks him to hug her, are in a way heartbreaking. We know that Ishii isn’t her father, but she seems to believe he is.
Filmed in a documentary style with a handheld camera, Family Romance, LLC blurs the boundary between reality and fiction, just as Ishii does with his line of work. “Family Romance” is a real company in Tokyo. Yuichi Ishii is the real-life CEO of Family Romance, LLC. You’re never quite sure, therefore, throughout the film, when fiction begins and when reality surfaces.
However, as the film unfolds, the real question that arises is whether this boundary between reality and fiction isn’t always blurred in this medium of cinema. Isn’t it the essence of cinema this play between what is real and what is fictionalized? As much as a part of documentaries is always fictionalized—through staging, editing, or a narrating voice—fiction films are just as much a document of a certain reality.
By an altar, a woman tells Ishii that she prays to the fox because the animal has the power to alter reality. This is in a way what Ishii’s company is trying to achieve: alter reality so that it fits one’s desires. But, isn’t this what ultimately cinema does too, as it creates a world attuned with our desires, as the French film critic André Bazin wrote. Both cinema and the company Family Romance, LLC, in this sense, are in the business of creating illusions—illusions we are so eager to believe in or let others believe, to hide, perhaps, from the truth.
Herzog’s film, however, isn’t so much making a point about cinema, but about society. The existence of a company like Family Romance suggests that we are now in a society that is more interested in artifice, appearances and fake relationships. What does this say about our society when we are more interested in fake news than real facts?
Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC is an intriguing, unsettling film about the growing confusion between real and fake in today’s society.