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REVIEW: Reality and fiction blur in this Werner Herzog documentary about a Tokyo company hiring out actors as family members which was a Scottish premiere at Inverness Film Festival

By Margaret Chrystall

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IFF REVIEW: Family Romance


INVERNESS Film Festival programmer Paul Macdonald-Taylor introduced this Scottish premiere saying its director Werner Herzog had never made the same film twice.

The director has even used his tongue-in-cheek documentary style in our own area – Incident At Loch Ness in 2004, a mockumentary within a mockumentary about searching for the Loch Ness monster, went on to win a New American Cinema Award at Seattle International Film Festival.

And, if memory serves, Herzog’s film was shown at Inverness Film Festival.

In this latest 'documentary' he focuses on a Tokyo business that hires out actors to play family members as the customer requests, which leads to an interesting look at how the line between real and pretend relationships – even love – starts to blur.

The cast of ‘real’ people is played by a non-professional acting cast.

Family Romance, LLC,
Family Romance, LLC,

First we meet Mr Ishii – Ishii Yuichi – waiting in a suit on a bridge in Tokyo to play the missing father of a 12-year-old called Mahiro, going to see the cherry blossom together like other families, also heading to the fairground.

Gradually you see the two start to make a real bond.

Meanwhile other actors are helping with a woman who wants to substitute her real husband at her daughter’s wedding (saying he’s epileptic, in fact he is an alcoholic) with a Family Romance actor, another woman wants to recreate the amazing feeling she had when first told she had had a lottery win. And a third wants to pretend she is famous and have people see her being pursued by the paparazzi. Also a rail employee hires someone to take the blame for a mistake at work that might otherwise have cost him his job.

But the main relationship is between Mahiro and Mr Ishii.

Whatever your feelings about what he is paid to do, you start to empathise. He offers sympathetic relationship advice to Mahiro who reveals she can’t make the boy she likes at school notice her.

“Sometimes we are all invisible,” he reassures her.

He reports back to Mahiro’s mother – who has hired him – after his first meeting with Mahiro.

She asks if her daughter remembers certain things about her real father and if she has mentioned them. She wonders if Mr Ishii could reproduce an eye twitch that the original dad had.

“Our policy at Family Romance is that we can only do who we really are,” he says. “If I did an eye twitch it would look as if I was faking it.”

And the difference between what is real and fake – and the questions about the right and wrong of these paid-for relationships is constantly coming to the surface.

Herzog even has Ishii contemplate what might be the next step on for surrogate family stand-ins, when he visits a hotel where there are sophisticated robots greeting guests at reception – there are even robot fish in the tank there, their machinery visible through their transparent skinsas they swim.

As the film goes on, it is Ishii you start to feel for when he has to reveal to Mahiro’s mother that a boundary is close to being crossed with the girl.

“On the weekend she wants to stay with me… We need to face facts, this is going too far,” he tells Mahiro’s mother with concern.

Her reply will probably surprise you.

And before long you start to see the toll his acting work may be taking on Mr Ishii.

This documentary was directed by Herzog, but also written by him, so perhaps more accurately it should be called scripted reality at the very least. And with its up-on-high drone perspectives from far up above Tokyo's teeming city life, it feels as if Herzog's cast below are as actorly as in any feature film.

Best quote:Ishii to Mahiro’s mum:“Recently Mahiro has been saying she loves me. On the weekend she wants to stay with me … At Family Romance we are not allowed to love or be loved. I need to be more careful.”

What happens: A real Japanese company supposedly allows director Werner Herzog to film their work providing actors to play relatives or create fantasy scenarios for clients willing to pay. But reality and fiction begins to blur.

Short review:This documentary – or perhaps more accurately scripted reality – opens up a surreal world in Tokyo where surrogate family members can be hired to make up for real-life disappointments.

Who for: Anyone who likes to keep track of the latest trends in human weirdness.

Family Romance, LLC will return to Eden Court Cinema in March.

The trailer:

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