Filtered By: Lifestyle

'Plan 75' film competing in Cannes features Filipina actresses

One of the movies in competition at the Un Certain Regard section in Cannes is "Plan 75,"  featuring Filipina actresses Stefanie Arianne and Sheryl Ichikawa and directed by Japanese filmmaker Chie Hayakawa.

The Japanese-Philippine-French collaboration movie tells the story of how a government program in Japan, Plan 75, encourages senior citizens to be euthanized to remedy the increasingly fast-growing older society in the country.

Before we left for Cannes, we were privileged to interview Hayakawa, Arianne, Ichikawa, and co-producers Alemberg Ang and Will Fredo Manalang. 

Below are excerpts of our interviews with them.

Stefanie Arianne (actress)

Photo courtesy of Alexandra Thill Photography
Photo courtesy of Alexandra Thill Photography

How did you get involved in the film?

I got the casting through one of my freelance agencies, Freewave.

Were you aware of the works of director Chie Hayakawa before this project?

I wasn't aware of her works before. However, she knows the previous directors I've worked with— Seiji Tanaka ("Melancholic") and Atsuko Hirayanagi ("Oh! Lucy"). It's such a small world!

Before this project, what films were you involved in?

I've done two feature films. In the first one, I played a receptionist in "Oh! Lucy." Next, I played Angela in "Melancholic." For short films, I've played Lisa in "Jose's Tour de Tokyo," Jazel in "Gaikokujin," and more.

You are based in Japan and of Filipino and Japanese ancestry. Can you tell us more about your family?

My Dad is Japanese, and my mother is Filipino. Her province is Quezon province. She used to live in Japan, but she moved back to Manila a couple of years ago. And my dad is living in the Kyushu Region of Japan.

How is it living in Japan? Were you born there? If not, where were you born? Do you speak Tagalog?

I was born and raised in various parts of the Philippines. I lived in multiple places: Parañaque, San Pedro, Laguna, Quezon City and Cainta. And yes, I understand and can speak Tagalog.

However, when I moved to Tokyo, I was surrounded by international people. I mainly spoke English and even adapted the Aussie/Kiwi accent of my co-workers. I rarely used just pure Tagalog since my brothers, and I spoke a mix of English Tagalog Japanese.

When I talk to my family back in the Philippines it's also mainly in English or Taglish. Since I've been away for 10 years, my relatives in the Philippines tease how funny my Tagalog sounds or because I use old-school slang. They usually say "Ang gulo ng story mo ‘cause, di kita maintindihan mag English ka na lang ulit! (I do not understand your story because I do not understand you with your accent. Just speak in English again!)"

So, I usually end up speaking to them in English because I can express myself in this language easier! Dati nahihiya po ako mag Tagalog kasi barok barok ako pero ngayon nag-pra-practice ako ng marami! Ang goal ko po ay gumawa ng essay na puro Tagalog lamang at aralin ang Baybayin! (Before, I was embarrassed to speak in Tagalog because of my broken Tagalog so I practice a lot nowadays. My goal is to be able to write an essay in straight Tagalog and study Baybayin.)

Tell us more about your role and how did you prepare for your role?

I play Maria. She's an OFW who went to Japan. On our first table reading, I was surprised when Mr. Alemberg Ang commented if I can speak Tagalog and why I have an accent. I was honestly just scared then and there if they'll recast me.

Luckily, they didn't! Whew! He gave me pointers on which Filipino actresses I should copy accent-wise. I was mainly watching a bunch of Angel Locsin and Angelica Panganiban's movies. and to make sure I sounded authentic, we also had an accent coach, David, on set.

My current accent is a mix of Aussie/Kiwi since I worked for a New Zealand cookie shop in Tokyo for four years. I just adapted the accent naturally because I worked with a lot of Australians and Kiwis back then. However, this doesn't help my role as Maria.

Therefore, I made a rule for myself to not speak in English one hour before my scenes to make sure none of my original accent will slip through. Also, to feel and experience the deep emotions needed for my character, I made a playlist specifically for Maria's character on Spotify.

I would constantly listen to it during my commute to the set. I also asked my aunt about her views and what else I can add to the character. These preparations helped a lot in a short period!

How was it working with director Chie Hayakawa?

She creates a professional and cohesive work environment. During the audition and filming, I love how authentic and caring she is. She would genuinely ask questions to get to know me and the Filipino culture.

Working with her was a wonderful experience. She knew exactly what she wanted and gave me clear instructions. She was also very open to listening to my suggestions and letting me explore the character. She is very inspiring and drove my passion even more.

How was your audition process?

They initially had a different Filipino cast lineup, but since the Japanese borders went up, they needed to cast locally. I got the role through one of my freelance agencies, Freewave. I remember calling my cousin on my way to the audition and we practiced my lines together to make sure I'm nailing it. She also critiqued what I wore to make sure I looked exactly the part.

At the audition, I did my scenes with different actors who are also auditioning for the Grace role. I also used my childhood photo as a prop in one of my scenes. It consisted of different emotions and a lot of crying. The day I got the news, I was assisting a customer in the cookie shop I worked at. My watch buzzed and I glanced at it quickly. The first thing I read was "you got the role" and I was trying hard not to burst out crying in front of the customer.

On top of that, we had to wait if the borders will go up or not. Two weeks later after the initial message, my agent confirmed that I officially got it. It was such a surreal experience!

How was it working with another Filipina actress, Sheryl Ichikawa?

We auditioned together! That was the first time I met her. It was instant chemistry.

During the audition, when the director said action, we didn't realize we were both doing a different scene from each other. But we made it work naturally! That's how I knew she was an amazing actress.

On my way home from the audition, I thought to myself, "Even if I don't get this gig, I hope she gets it" and surprise! We both got it! She helped me a lot with my Tagalog lines during the shoot. We had a lot of fun together and one of my favorite memories was she and I couldn't stop giggling at each other for no reason.

We were practicing before a take. It's supposed to be a serious scene so we both had to force ourselves to calm down far away from each other. Haha!

Why do you think audiences will be able to connect to this film?

Audiences will be able to empathize with the characters, who feel widespread societal pressures that, while not beneficial to their agendas, encourage them to make decisions despite what's truly best for them under the guise of altruism. It will also make you think about what you want in life when you reach a certain age.

What is your next project?

I have some auditions lined up and a TV drama role for when I come back from France. I can't say yet what they're for but I'm very excited!

Sheryl Ichikawa (actress)

Photo courtesy of Plan 75
Photo courtesy of Plan 75

Before this project, what films were you involved in?

My journey as an actress has always been challenging. I know that I'm always just an option and I can be easily replaced. I always keep in mind that I'm not someone special and that I always have to keep my feet on the ground. This is also what I tell my kids.

During my teenage years, I acted on stage. Before I started working in Japan when I was 19 years old, my friends asked me to join them when they auditioned for a segment in the TV Show, "Eat Bulaga." When I was there, I was also asked to audition. I was surprised they immediately called me to join the show.

I won and became a finalist as an EB (Eat Bulaga) Babe. Then I received my ticket to Japan. After a month, I was back in the Philippines, and I was cast as an extra for a teleserye. But then I needed to go back to Japan ASAP. I decided to postpone my dream of becoming a singer-actress when I return to the Philippines after my work in Japan. But I fell in love with my husband, and we got married.

After 10 years, and having three kids, someone approached me with an offer last May, but I turned it down. I told him that I have already turned my back on becoming an actress. But then I shared this with my husband, and I shared with him that I miss going in front of the camera. After I opened up to my husband, he encouraged me to pursue my dreams as long I don't forget about my responsibilities to our family.

I then called the manager and we met within that week. I started becoming an extra in a few TV shows like a popular drama series, a variety quiz show, and a movie in Japan. I also got into modeling, soon it came to a point when I don't need to audition for the role anymore especially if my manager knows that I can do it.

During this time, I was still doing all my mommy duties like going to my children's PTA meetings. When I have a shoot, I would wake up early to prepare their dinner. If it's a no school day, I would cook an entire day's meals so that even if I come home late, I feel better knowing that my kids are well taken care of. My husband told me that I shouldn't worry if I'm busy and he will take care of things. But after being a housewife for many years, I wasn't used to it. I would still like to do everything for my family. It's my way to show my love for them.

Eventually, my kids also started acting here in Japan. My husband would always take us to our set and pick us up when we're done.

I got to work with different directors, and they would recommend me to other directors. Whenever someone is looking for a Filipino actress in Japan, they would recommend me. I have already worked with Direk Ricky Davao for the Lenten Drama Special of Eat Bulaga. They shot in Fukuoka. I also worked in a Viva film. I am just thankful for the Lord's blessings and my work has been continuous. I also did voiceover work for NHK. That's when I received the call to audition for "Plan 75." I’m lucky that I got to work with Filipino director-producer Will and producer Alemberg.

I love acting and I'm happy that I get to work as an actress. I work with different nationalities; people have different personalities. We learn to respect each other. If you show them that you respect them then they will respect, you.

I kept auditioning and I was getting a lot of work until the pandemic. I still have pending projects. But I pray that hopefully we all move forward so we can go back to normal.

Tell us more about your role and how did you prepare for your role?

Grace is a strong character. I'd call her a "fighter mom." Like most Filipino moms, she will do everything for her children, and she'll always be ready and willing to help other nanays like her. She has a big heart, always helping everyone.

I relate very well to the character as a strong mother. I always give 100% to my family. I would like to think that I also have a big heart, someone who tries to help everyone. But then I must admit that I'm also human (tao rin po tayo) who can also get hurt. And unlike Grace, I'm not as friendly as she is. I can get a little shy at times. Mahiyain po talaga ako. Especially when in front of the camera.

How was it working with director Chie Hayakawa?

Direk Chie Hayakawa is a very good director. She has a quiet demeanor.

Direk Chie Hayakawa shared with me what she thought about the character of Grace, then she explained to me that she wants Sheryl to be a good representation of a Filipina who has been living in Japan for several years now.

During the shoot, everyone in the production team was very welcoming. Direk Chie asked me if I have any questions and if there is anything the team can do to make me feel comfortable. I can feel her confidence in me as an actress which helped me deliver my lines. That's why I also felt confident that I can do my very best to portray the character of Grace.

Chie Hayakawa (Director)

Photo courtesy of Plan 75
Photo courtesy of Plan 75

How did you get involved in the film?

I started to think about becoming a film director since I was 13 years old.

I studied photography in the School of Visual Arts in New York. After I came back to Japan, I decided to go to a night film school as I had a full-time job at the time. The thesis short film was accepted to Cinefondation at Cannes Film Festival in 2014, that opened the door for me to become a professional filmmaker. I made one of the five short omnibus film; "Ten Years Japan" (2018) executive produced by Hirokazu Koreeda. I made a short version of "Plan 75" for that project. After "Ten Years Japan", I developed it into feature length film.

Why did you pursue working on this film?

In summer 2016, a man murdered 19 disabled people, purporting that severely disabled people have no worth staying alive, and that his deed was an act of mercy. In his testimonial letter describing his motive, he used the words "vitalization of the world economy." His logic was that the existence of disabled people hinders economic activity, and that economic value was more important than human lives.

I don't believe that this way of thinking is confined to one deranged murderer. In our society where economic value is prized over everything else, I cannot help thinking that there are in fact many people who share similar emotions. Our capitalist society, which values rationality and productivity, creates the distinction between "worthy lives" and "worthless lives," and critical views on socially weak people get stronger by the day. My anger and anxiety toward such intolerance of society motivated me to make this film.

What attracted you to it?

I'm very excited to work on this project as an international co-production of Japan, France, and the Philippines.

It was a very happy experience for me to share the joy of making the film with all the staff of these three countries.

I felt that there is no border in film making.

How was it working with a very diverse cast?

It was fun. I really appreciate Stefanie Arianne and Sheryl Ichikawa, and many Filipino extras who played people at church to join our project among all the Japanese staff during the COVID-19 era.

What were the challenges you encountered in making this film?

As the film was made under the COVID-19 situation, it was difficult to maintain close communication with staff and actors. We all had to wear masks which prevented to see our facial expression and emotion. We couldn't have meals together.

I hope that we will be released from such restriction soon and develop more sufficient communication.

How did you find actresses Stefanie Arianne and Sheryl Ichikawa?

Stefanie Arianne is a very affable and brave person. Her gaze and presence gave me a strong impression. Maria is a character who is so determined to live for herself and her daughter. Stefanie's down-to-earth presence breathes life into Maria. She often gave me ideas during the shoot, that helped me a lot. I really appreciate it and am very proud of her.

Sheryl Ichikawa is a mother of three kids which is the same as her Grace character. She is very generous and warm hearted, she has exactly the same personality as Grace.

What made them stand out from the other actresses who auditioned?

At the audition, Stefanie was very relaxed and super friendly, and she helped us to do several sessions when auditioning the male actor as her husband role besides the audition for her own role. (The husband role ended up not to exist.) So, I had a lot of chance to see her acting.

When Stefanie and Sheryl happened to become a pair at the audition as Maria and Grace, they were so good and natural. I thought the chemistry between them was perfect.

Why do you think audiences will be able to connect to this film?

Everyone will get old. The film is about human dignity, and how we live and how we die. Especially after going through the COVID-19 era, I assume that there are many people who think reflectively about life and death.

What is your next project?

I am developing a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl who cool-headedly faces up to her dying father and it is inspired by my childhood.

Alemberg Ang and Will Fredo Manalang (co-producers)

Photo courtesy of Plan 75
Photo courtesy of Plan 75

How did you get involved in the film? How did you know the director, Chie Hayakawa?

Alemberg Ang (AA): I was attending Focus Asia, the industry section of the Udine Far East Film Festival, pitching another project when I was introduced to Eiko and Jason Gray. They were working on a Japanese film with Filipino elements and perhaps I can help them with it. That basically started my involvement in the project.

I met Chie when I participated at Talents Tokyo in 2014. Talents Tokyo is a training initiative for Asian producers and directors. It’s affiliated with Berlinale Talents. She was also a participant there.

Before this project, what projects were you involved in?

AA: Before working on Plan 75, I have been involved in two other international co-productions. The first is a Filipino Canadian story entitled "Magayon (Woman in the Woods)" about the mythical goddess, Daragang Magayon and a Canadian backpacker who got lost in Mayon. The second is a documentary by a Filipino-American filmmaker entitled "Divine Factory." We won the best pitch prize at Cannes Docs in 2020 and we’re now on our final stages of post. I have a few other projects that’s in the development and financing stages.

How did you try to find partners from the top companies?

AA: I reached out to my contacts in various companies to gauge their interest. A lot were actually intrigued in the project. Our biggest hurdle came when the pandemic hit, and everyone seemed to be a little hesitant to spend more money as distribution for their existing line-up have stopped.

When did Will Fredo Manalang of Fusee Company, executive producer, come on board and how do you know him? How did he come on board and what is his company all about?

AA: I remember writing to Will telling him how happy I am how his projects have been slowly taking off. That eventually led to a conversation about what he is doing now. He just left ABS-CBN's international division and was starting his own company. That's when I started pitching the projects that I'm working on with him.

I didn't know at that time, but Will was setting up Fusee already with his partners, Alicia Watt and George Sommerrock, when I presented "Plan 75." They want Fusee to be a creative content company and their goal is to uplift and bring Filipinx representation into the forefront.

What were all the steps you took in preparing yourself to work in international co-productions?

AA: I remember in 2016, Liza Dino (FDCP Chair) just started, and she was taking a delegation to the Busan International Film Festival. I have heard so many good things about Busan but have been quite hesitant to go since I have not had any project that got into the festival. However, I found Liza to be super encouraging, so I took the leap of faith and went without any film or project. That somehow started opening my eyes into looking at the possibility of working with international people.

Then I joined a series of international co-production workshops by the FDCP where Liza brought in international mentors like Raymond Pathanavirangoon of SEAFIC and Paolo Berlino to the Venice Film Festival and Locarno Open Doors. Both gave very informative and literally, life-changing workshops that made me decide to start working on international co-productions. I feel that it's a shame for our stories when they're only going to be made for cheap. Sayang! Ang ganda-ganda ng mga kuwento natin.

So, by trying to partner with international producers, we not only get to work with the world’s best, but we can also tap into financing from other countries. This will definitely elevate Philippine cinema and hopefully make our mark in world cinema.

How and where did you find Japan-based Filipina Japanese actress Stefanie Arianne? What made her stand out from the other actresses who auditioned?

AA: We actually did a virtual casting call given the COVID-19 pandemic. We initially presented to our director Chie Hayakawa and our Japan counterparts some of the established actresses in the country who might fit the role. The list got narrowed down and we set up Zoom readings.

It was actually a difficult process since we have a really good pool of seasoned actors. Our Japanese partners were blown away by the talent we have in the Philippines and how given such a short amount of time, our actresses were able to learn the Japanese parts of our audition pieces. Not only did they sound authentic, but they were also acting, giving really heightened emotions while delivering lines in Japanese.

Given the tight production schedule set for December 2021 to January 2022, scheduling the actresses became a little problematic given that some of them have already committed to projects in 2022 and of course, the Christmas holidays. The actress needed to quarantine in Japan for the New Year and that is quite challenging for us Pinoys who spend out holidays with our family. And then, to compound the situation, the Omicron surge blew up and Japan locked down preventing us from flying the actor.

We were doing everything here in Manila to get a visa for our actress. We sought the assistance of the Film Development Council of the Philippines and the Japan Foundation. But the Japanese government was resolute in closing its borders. We even heard that Keanu Reeves who's supposed to shoot an edition of John Wick was denied entrance. What more a small project like ours.

Luckily our Japan counterpart did auditions for the other Filipino characters in the script. Will and I were asked to check out a number of potential Filipino actresses that fit the physicality of the role and we all gravitated towards Stefanie.

How and where did you find Sheryl Ichikawa?

AA: Our Japanese producers sent us audition recordings of other actresses whom they think fits the role. When Will saw Sheryl, he placed her in his list of actors to consider and suggested to me to check her out. We found her very natural and motherly which suited her role. We're glad she eventually made the cut and play an important role in the film.

Talk about how you helped Stefanie Arianne via Zoom during the shoot? And Will helping Sheryl Ichikawa via Zoom for her dubbing?

Will Fredo Manalang (WFM): Given I'm also a director, Zoom and other online technology actually change and simplify some things in the filmmaking process. It is cost efficient given we can talk to anybody now anywhere in the world. But the experiential process of filmmaking, of getting close with the cast, the crew, and being in a communal experience together cannot be replaced by technology.

AA: I remember coaching Stefanie and helping the production when the Filipino actresses are involved via Zoom and Google Meet while I was recovering from Omicron. I've always kid that had I been allowed to go to Japan, I wouldn't have gotten COVID-19.

I immediately noticed Stefanie's Aussie accent. I even thought she was Filipino-Australian because of it. So, I told Chie and our Japanese producers that we need her to work on it a little more so that it's more natural sounding for a Filipino. I started looking for foreign series with Filipino actors so that I can identify to them which ones sounded authentic Pinoy and which ones you can already tell that they have a Western accent. I've sent those samples to Stefanie, and she studied them diligently. She also studied the accents of prominent Filipino actresses.

The Japanese team eventually hired a language coach for Stefanie. Since I cannot physically be on set, they patched me via Zoom and Google Meet so I can watch the scenes and comment on Stefanie's acting and accent. I didn't want to rattle Stefanie, so I avoided talking to her directly. I would give my feedback to both Chie and the acting coach so they will relay it to Chie.

WFM: Given there's a specific requirement for the roles, I worked with Sheryl during the ADR for some of the lines in the script. Adjusting some of the accents and delivery to fit what's needed in the scenes. It's a bit difficult given we're doing all of this via Zoom – Sheryl together with Eiko and Jason in a Japan studio, our director Chie is in France with our sound engineer, and I'm in Seattle coaching Sheryl. It's quite amazing we're able to do it this way.

AA: What's great with working with Will is that he's a director himself so he works well with actresses.

WFM: The funny thing about this, after doing ADR, the next day I missed a call from Eiko and Jason. I was worried. I thought something went wrong or they want me to check on the ADR recordings. When they called back again, they told me the news about Plan75 getting in Cannes.

Talk about how you attended the shoots involving the Filipino actors via Zoom and what did you learn from that experience.

AA: I already shot the digital series, "Hello Stranger" via Zoom so I had some experience already in Zoom shoots. "Plan 75" shoot was actually much easier because I only had to watch the acting. I didn't have to worry about the technicalities and other set-related matters as there was an entire crew on set.

Why do you think audiences will be able to connect to this film?

AA: COVID-19 has changed us. And throughout the pandemic, we all had to suddenly deal with our mortality and how easy it is for lives to be snuffed out. We all have a loved one who either perished or almost died. And so, the conversation about mortality, and our social responsibility to each other, especially to our elderly, is an important conversation to have now.

—MGP, GMA News