Festivals, Reviews

QCinema 2022: ‘Plan 75’—An Autopsy of a Morbid Life Retirement Program

One of this year’s QCinema entries under the Asian Next Wave category is the Cannes Camera d’Or Special Mention awardee Plan 75. A feature debut of Chie Hayakawa, it has an intriguing yet harrowing premise: To combat the country’s rapidly graying population, the government of a near-future Japan introduces a program called “Plan 75,” which gives the senior citizens the option to euthanize themselves.

At her staggering curtain-lifter, Hayakawa introduces the parent of her idea by placing a shadowed gunman at a retirement home who proceeds to kill the residents and then himself. This opening is a reimagined bit from the Sagamihara stabbings in 2016, where a 26-year-old man killed 19 and injured 25 disabled people with a motive to get rid of them because they are a ‘burden’ to society. The killer even proposed the solution of euthanizing the disabled “for the sake of Japan and world peace.” An enraged Hayakawa reflects on such gruesome intention, translates it into a national scale, and packages a “Plan 75” program for the oldies in her dystopic portrait of Japan.

Through its dazzling marketing strategy, it cannot be denied that the “Plan 75” program does sound like a good deal, not only to the elderly who are just waiting to go but scared to do it themselves, but also to the youth who are anxious to get old. The seductive appeal of the plan is its promise of a systematic and smooth send-off process. Imagine being a senior and being assured that from application up to your last breath, you will be taken care of by a salesman, a 24/7 support agent, and an after-death caregiver. Who wouldn’t want that? After all, it’s nice to painlessly die on your own terms instead of getting hit by a 10-wheeler truck, right? But wait, there’s more! If you sign up, you will receive a stipend of 100,000 yen that you can spend on whatever you wish before your death appointment. And besides a funeral service, there’s also a group plan if you want to be cremated with your fellow oldsters. What a convenient end-of-life offer!

But as compassionate as Plan 75 tries to present itself, it fails to hide its coldheartedness in only favoring the lives that have more contributing power. It’s through this hypothetical ultra-nationalistic and ageist death assistance plan that Hayakawa softly reveals a dehumanizing and capitalist Japanese government that resorts to sacrificing the less-productive elderly instead of being open to other options to boost the economy. Sure, the “Plan 75” program is posed as “voluntary,” but deep down, it is highly, highly recommended.

That said, if you choose to sign up for the “Plan 75” program, you are volunteering your own life to be a part of an effective economic solution (which is honorable, because you’re doing it for the “greater good”). But the more I think about it, the program seems to be a euphemistic, senior-friendly, and dystopian version of hara-kiri (the ceremonial suicide of the ancient Japanese samurai). Though differing in the procedure, they share the intent of self-sacrificing to avoid “dishonor”–in the elderly’s case, it’ll be a “shame” to the country’s growth if they choose to live longer.

Everything’s already too heavy to digest, but Hayakawa doesn’t stop there. To further examine the various individual impacts of such a program, Hayakawa braids three gazes: Michi (Chieko Baishô), a 78-year-old woman who applies for the program after exhausting all the survival options; Hiromi (Hayato Isomura), the pragmatic salesman who recruits the death-ready seniors; and Maria (Stefanie Arriane Akashi), a religious, migrant Filipina worker who switches from being a “living elderly” caregiver to a “dead elderly” helper.

Chieko Baishô’s award-winning performance as Michi is the film’s gem. Her character represents the seniors who are hesitant towards this all-expenses-paid voluntary euthanasia scheme. With perfect health at 78, she can still live a longer life. But since she’s child-free and self-supporting, she has no one but herself. At first, ending her life isn’t an option, but as she faces unemployment and isolation, she starts to consider the offer. Awaiting her final moments, she strikes a meaningful connection with the cheerful Yoko (Yuumi Kawai), her 24/7 support agent, who unconsciously awakens her hope to continue living. It is in this angle that the audience sees Michi’s personal celebration of her own life—detached from how her unwelcoming society sees her.

Hiromi’s and Maria’s performances are also noteworthy. Their stories explore the psychological and moral toll of having a job in the death assistance sector. Hiromi starts off as completely dedicated in recommending the plan but ends up questioning it when his uncle becomes a client. Meanwhile, Hayakawa’s inclusion of a Filipina is her attempt to highlight the differences between the warm Filipino community and the cold Japanese community. Maria proves this warmth at the start as she genuinely takes care of and treats seniors with deep respect—as embedded in Filipino culture. But as her storyline progresses, the extent of this warmth is explored. As she makes the decision to take a higher-pay after-death care job out of a pressing financial need, she also touches on the sacrifices Filipino OFWs have to make for the sake of their loved ones, regardless if those sacrifices aren’t morally aligned with them.

Handling a sensitive topic, Chie Hayakawa’s direction is impressive. She lifts her fingers the way she perceives aging—slow, rapid, still. With the dexterity of an unpredictable and precise conductor, she strikes random chords at the right time, and most importantly, she knows exactly when to insert the powerful silences. What seems unnecessary, like that long shot of the blurred building lights or that fixed view of the raindrops softly tapping the windshield, are as significant as the major scenes. Those simple and mundane things, the “stillness” those scenes evoke, prompts the audience to breathe and contemplate.­ ­

In its early parts, Plan 75 holds tightly to its bleak view of the geriatric as disposables, but as it reaches its end, it’s no longer about the horrors of senility: it’s about how a person affirms their own existence. And this is perfectly articulated by Hayakawa’s radiant and fulfilling endnote. Plan 75, aside from being a haunting life retirement plan, is an iridescent and poetic commemoration of the beauty of mortality—honoring each breath you took and will continue to take. 

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