Werner Herzog must have been delighted when one of the trade reviewers - doubtless recovering from a glass too many of festival-circuit Beaujolais - mistook his latest Family Romance, LLC for a documentary. This is, in fact, one of this ever more prolific filmmaker's occasionally forays into drama, albeit shot on the type of no-frills digital that has become the hallmark of so much 21st century non-fiction. (Herzog even tosses in a couple of drone shots, those towering airborne cliches of modern documentary syntax - so maybe the mistake was understandable.) With its intimate focus on the minutiae of Japanese family life, it's not obviously Herzogian subject matter; scrub the opening credits, and that off-form reviewer might just have mistaken the whole thing for early Hirokazu Kore-eda. The business of the title is an agency that rents out actors to stand in for absent or deceased relatives, whether to reassure their clientele or provide onlookers with a comforting illusion of family unity. Herzog presents us with a series of case studies: the main narrative throughline concerns the agency's founder (Yuichi Ishii), who takes the gig of posing as the estranged father of a withdrawn teenage girl (Mahiro Tanimoto), though we also see his underlings engaged as support for a bereaved bride-to-be and a team deployed to surprise a lonely lottery winner. I think the unifying idea - which Kore-eda would have polished and punched up emotionally - was to set us to wondering whether these paid surrogates can ever truly replace long-established, much-missed family ties. As it transpires, Herzog - roving eye very much to the fore here - could scarcely seem to care less: that errant critic was taking this assignment far more seriously than its maker ever was.
If Family Romance, LLC swiftly shapes up as minor Herzog, it's because its maker appears far less interested in his characters - the element of fiction - than in the non-fiction that serves as the characters' backdrop. The tricky fake-father-actual-daughter reunion takes place amid the cherry blossoms, and thereafter encompasses a wishing wall, a temple devoted to the humble fox ("they're good for enabling change", we learn) and a hotel staffed entirely by androids, replete with android angelfish in the foyer fishtank. This was clearly a film born of the desire to do something on the subject of ever-headscrambling Japanese ritual: the locations came first, and everything else had to be thrashed out more or less on the spot. That trade reviewer's mistake perhaps derived from the long stretches here that look to have been improvised without a script, and with the assistance of passers-by roped in to provide additional local colour: a performance artist who does a Bruce Grobbelaar-style wobbly-legs routine while snapping photos for tourists, or the young mixed-race girl, apparently bullied by her peers, who comes to steal a couple of scenes by being quietly adorable.
Of structure, there is precious little, which may explain why the story hardly takes. The agency's daily workings are set out in sketchy, shrugging scenes, and several moments suggest the premise hasn't been thought through all that much: there's an especially baffling sequence involving an actor hired to take a dressing-down for a bullet-train employee - while said employee stands adjacent to his boss. (At no point does the film address the imposture involved - by, say, having someone point out the actors look nothing like the people they're meant to be standing in for - which struck me as less an acute observation about Japanese politeness and more indicative of indifference on Herzog's part.) Family Romance, LLC is only ever going to do something for you if you approach it as Herzog at large, an example of a fabled filmmaker amusing and entertaining himself (and perhaps himself alone). It may still be possible to revel in the creative freedom the director has been allowed, and those devil-may-care liberties he takes for himself, but increasingly I found myself tuning out of the film's flimsy, half-hearted attempts at narrative coherence and instead awaiting the next collection of images such as any traveller might bring back from far-flung, culturally distinct climes. A hedgehog in a hamster wheel. An overhead shot of a crosswalk, reducing those traversing it to busy ants. A live man trying out a coffin for size. A blind soothsayer, interrupted mid-prognostication by the ringing of a telephone. Minor Herzog, then, but also typical of the way even minor Herzog shows us things to make our eyes pop, while making us wonder anew about the ways of this world.
Family Romance, LLC will be available to stream from Friday.