Meaningful and understated, but entertaining

Mifune’s Last Song

The opportunity to make a new beginning in life can be alluring. Mifune’s Last Song is about making new starts; but it’s also about keeping secrets and having them eventually catch up with you. The film gently chastises its characters’ occasionally distasteful moral choices – that is, to lie – while also championing their bravery for at least trying to remake themselves into something better. Mifune’s highlights the ambiguities in human nature, pointing out that we’re all a bundle of contradictions seeking to straighten ourselves out somehow. And harnessing this aspect of human nature makes for great understated, dialogue-driven cinema.

This is the third film certified as an authentic Dogma 95 production, meaning that it adheres to the ten principles enshrined in the famed cinematic "vow of chastity" taken by a group of Danish directors to create what are really, when it comes down to it, nothing more than truly independent films. Among other restrictions, to be considered a Dogma production only available light and sound may be used, cameras must be handheld and genre conventions eschewed. Following in the footsteps of Tomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration and Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots, Mifune’s is a sparse and unfussy production – an honest and raw portrayal of dishonesty and its consequences, if you like. At a technical level, it’s a forceful reminder that film-makers don’t need a big budget to capture the simple beauty of a sunset or the lighting of a candle.

As the film opens, the good-looking Kresten (Anders W Berthelsen) is the epitome of modern success. He’s a successful Copenhagen businessman complete with BMW and mobile phone, and has just married Claire (Sofie Gr?b?l), the daughter of his boss. On his honeymoon, however, he receives a phonecall early one morning, and tells Claire he has to return to the family farm as his father has just died. Claire is understandably suspicious; Kresten had told her previously that he had no family. The audience is left wondering whether Kresten is hiding something too, watching him nervously brush off Claire’s attempts to come with him.

It turns out his father really has died, his mother has committed suicide some years before, and he has an intellectually disabled brother named Rud (Jesper Asholt), living on in a farmhouse that’s a mere step up from a hovel. Claire knows nothing of this, as Kresten has disowned his red-necked history to partake of a more sophisticated life in the big city.

The question of what to do with Rud leads Kresten to stay longer at the farm with no animals – bar a few hens and a cat that has no name. ("It used to be called Fresa, but it wouldn’t come, so Dad said we shouldn’t call it anything at all," explains Rud in a special cat-lovers’ moment.) Through an understated but very amusing turn of circumstances the two are able to afford a housekeeper, so Kresten places an advertisement to which an unexpectedly attractive woman, Liva (Iben Hjejle, High Fidelity), responds. Kresten doesn’t explain what’s brought him to the farmhouse, and Liva doesn’t reveal that she’s a prostitute escaping a creepy telephone stalker. The two are left to wonder about each other. When Kresten asks one too many questions, Liva simply responds sarcastically: "Woops, we nearly talked that good atmosphere all away."

Eventually Claire turns up and suspects the worst, and when Liva’s nasty brother Bjarke is kicked out of school Kresten offers a free bed to him if it means Liva will stay. Together, the four inhabitants of the house get to know each other, and in this way, Mifune’s also becomes quite a conventional story about families, how they can be formed from the least likely of situations, and why they are more important than mere material goods.

The title of the film refers to renowned Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, who died around the time that the movie went into production. In honour of Mifune’s memory, the storyline incorporates Kresten dressing up as the brave samurai Mifune to cheer up Rud when he’s upset. But in the end it’s not Rud who needs to learn from the example of Mifune – it’s Kresten and Liva. The former needs to let go of a glamorous life in the city, while Liva needs to learn that some people can be trusted.

In lesser hands, such a storyline may have stooped to mawkishness, but in this case director S?ren Kragh-Jacobsen and the main actors have created a very watchable, off-beat piece of cinema that’s both meaningful and entertaining. Mifune’s Last Song is not groundbreaking; but with Dogma films, that’s really the point.

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