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.

Summer sales in Hong Kong

Being a tax-free zone for all goods except alcohol and tobacco has long made Hong Kong an attractive shopping destination. To make it even more seductive to people seeking serious retail therapy, shops have traditionally banded together to offer two mega-sales periods per year: from New Year to Chinese New Year, and throughout summer.

And with summer on Hong Kong’s doorstep, now is the time to consider whether the short flight there might be worthwhile in terms of the big savings you can make. If you’re a fashion nut, Hong Kong can offer some serious savings on the same designer garb available in New York, London, Milan or Paris.

Other discounted items range from arts and crafts to jewellery, perfumes and leather goods. "It’s a popular destination for interior decorators and those interested in home wares and the latest electronics. Kids have great fun exploring the toy and model shops," Hong Kong Tourist Board representative Donna Morgan noted.

Many of the world’s top designer labels – think Armani, Christian Dior, DKNY, Fendi, Maxmara, Miu Miu – have kicked off the sales season this month with 10 to 30 per cent discounts. But if you can save yourself until August, prices are expected to drop by up to 50 per cent throughout that month.

Tie in your shopping trip with one of the great short stay packages available from various agents in Bangkok. DTC Travel offers 3 day/2 night and four day/3 night packages including accommodation, a half day Hong Kong island tour, and round trip airport transfers. Two nights on a twin sharing basis will set you back HK$430 (Bt2,480) per person at the Panda Hotel, $510 (Bt2,942) at BP International House or $730 (Bt4,212) at the New World Renaissance (among others). Three nights at the same hotels are $620 (Bt3,577), $720 (Bt4,154) or $1110 (Bt6,404). Prices (in Hong Kong dollars) are valid until August.

Of course you’ll need your airline ticket too. Fly economy with China Airlines for Bt8,200 return, or THAI for a two to seven day stay for Bt10,300. The latter price is for flights leaving on Fridays and Saturdays only. If your wallet can stand staying longer than seven days, THAI flies return for up to a year for Bt11,300. Cathay Pacific flies under similar conditions for the same price (excluding departure tax of Bt500).

Alternatively, go for Royal Orchid Holidays’ all-in-one package "Take A Break". It includes two nights accommodation with breakfast, round trip airport transfers and economy return airfare. Choose from a variety of hotels, such as the Park Hotel for Bt11,215, Century Hong Kong for Bt12,020 or the Hyatt Regency for Bt14,755. Duration of the price validity depends on the hotel chosen, and tickets must be booked seven days in advance.

If you’ve checked your diary and you just can’t get to Hong Kong this summer, don’t panic. Another shopping promotion kicked off in April and runs until March 2003: "City of Life: Hong Kong is it!". Under this promotion, all visitors to Hong Kong are granted a VIP Card that gives generous discounts at more than 600 shopping outlets (The holder will receive all the benefits normally associated with the participating stores’ own VIP privilege cards.) Selected tours are also discounted up to 50 per cent for cardholders. Where items are already on sale, however, discounts don’t apply.

Another recent development has been the establishment of the Quality Tourism Services (QTS) Scheme, set up by the Hong Kong Tourist Board in April. Under this scheme, retailers and restaurants are allowed to display a QTS sign once they guarantee to provide a particular level of service to consumers. One more step, perhaps, along Hong Kong’s way to becoming the most popular place in the world to shop.

Getaways from Bangkok: Hoi An

Historic Hoi An, one of Vietnam’s most charming cities, has been a viable short-term holiday destination for Bangkokians since October 1999, when THAI began flying to central Vietnam’s Danang. Previously accessible only to backpackers with more time on their hands, Hoi An is attracting increasing numbers of international travellers – and with its history, shopping and accessibility, it’s easy to see why.

Located 30km south of Danang, Hoi An was a major trading centre in Southeast Asia from the late 16th century onwards. Today it features beautiful ancient architecture heavily influenced by the Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese, Dutch and Malay traders. The remarkably high concentration of old merchant houses and shops, family chapels, temples, communal houses, pagodas and bridges serve to evoke an atmosphere redolent of Vietnam’s past unsurpassed elsewhere. Indeed, the old quarter was world heritage-listed by UNESCO in 1999, and visitors are now asked to pay a modest entry fee of VD50,000, which also gives them access to five historical sites.

History aside, the Hoi An of today is a great place to shop. Tailored clothes are the town’s most famed product – prices are far better than Bangkok, and the average quality is comparable. The Cloth Market features scores of tailors, and the streets are lined with scores more, so to avoid making a lucky guess seek a recommendation from your hotel or other travellers. Prices are negotiable, but expect to pay from US$7 for a pair of casual pants or a bias-cut skirt, US$12 for a dress, US$15 for a casual pantsuit, and upwards of US$25 for a suit, usually ready for a fitting within four to five hours. The better the quality of the material, the more you pay.

Shoe makers jostle for position along with the tailors, and will sew you up a pair of stylish leather or Vietnamese silk thongs within the hour. Prices start at around US$3 for a basic, perfectly-fitting pair.

Credit cards are widely accepted, but commissions can be high, with some shops asking for up to five per cent. Carrying cash on short trips can be more economical.

The food in Hoi An is exceptional, and many restaurants offer special set menus for as little as US$3 or 4. The riverfront Caf? de Amis, open for nearly ten years, pioneered this approach but remains unique: there’s no menu. Simply ask for vegetarian or seafood, and you’ll be served a selection of four delicious courses for VD40,000. Wine and beer are often a little cheaper than Thailand.

THAI flies to Danang (with a brief stop in Ubon Ratchatani) on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 8.35am, arriving at 10.10am. Return flights operate on the same day, leaving at 11.10am and arriving at Don Muang at 12.45pm. Return tickets are priced at Bt9,625 from THAI offices. Fixed-price taxis (US$10) make the 40-minute trip to Hoi An.

Low-budget hotels charge around US$12 for a double room with airconditioning during low season (March to August), but this can easily rise to US$24 during high season. The three-star Hoi An Hotel has doubles ranging from US$42 to US$60 per night, with a 15 per cent discount for May and June only. Up a notch again is the Hoi An Riverside Resort, which offers both Japanese and Vietnamese-style accommodation priced between US$109 and US$129 during high season (September to February). A forty per cent discount is offered during low season.

Travellers using Thai passports are granted a free 30-day visa on arrival, but those using other passports should check with the Vietnamese embassy to find out their visa requirements. A tax of US$10 payable on departure from Danang International Airport.