Fantasia 2014 Review: THE SEARCH FOR WENG WENG, Fruitful But Melancholy
Andy Stark and Pete Tombs ran an absolutely bonkers reel of money shots from their Mondo Macabro release label in front of a Pakistani slasher film they produced that was playing at Fantasia that year. There was more than enough "WTF" splashed on screen for those wild 16 minutes, but the clips featuring a 2 foot 9 inch James Bond sporting a jet pack, or jumping out of high rise and floating down with just an umbrella, was a stand out.
This was the same year that The Chuds' Weng Weng Rap video popped up on a nascent Youtube, also featuring loads of clips from For Y'ur Height Only and The Impossible Kid. And serendipitously, it was also the first year Aussie film enthusiast and trash scholar Andrew Leavold, embarked on a quest resulting in the documentary The Search For Weng Weng.
Scruffy and amiable, Leavold appears in the opening minutes introducing a small audience to the pleasures of Weng Weng films in Australia. His enthusiasm encapsulates that feeling of unvarnished pleasure that certain type of cinephile get from trashy grade z cinema produced anywhere in the world. The documentary, with zero pretense or production gloss, captures his investigation for answers throughout the Manila film scene, developing an empathetic tone as it goes along. It also gently begs the niggling question to the very same brand of cinephile: should we enjoy the product of so much icky politics and exploitative circumstance?
Weng Weng was born Ernesto de la Cruz into a poor family in Manila who nurtured him as a very tiny baby with medicine dropper. He died poor and rather ignobly, possibly from tainted shellfish in 1992. His gravestone is currently used to anchor laundry lines for people to dry their clothes; a practicality and reality for the area. Neither he nor his family ever saw any of the money -- which would be a princely sum -- that the diminutive actor's films fetched on local and foreign markets.
The owners of LILIW Studios, Peter and Cora Caballes, are singled out as mercenary in their business practices. It is implied that after discovering young Ernesto in a martial arts dojo in the 1970s, where he was a local attraction mainly due to his size but also some real talent, they hired him to function as a comic side kick; a little bit of background colour. The Caballeses kept him, in their home, as much as a pet as an employee. There is a touch of this reflected in the films as well; in one film his micro-James Bond character is imprisoned in a bird cage.
When the Agent 00 films proved to be a popular hit and monetary windfall -- one title went as far as outgrossing Raiders of the Lost Ark in a few markets -- the Caballes worked him hard. Consider that there was not only zero CGI at the time, but also no stunt men of that size, so Weng Weng had to do all of his stunts in films that are wall to wall stunts. And you probably guess correctly that there was not a lot of safety oversight while these stunts were set up and performed. Weng Weng seems to have been paid only in the privilege of doing the work, and the studio mascot celebrity that resulted.
The Caballes' line fell under the guise of 'looking after his affairs.' Peter would occasionally go out womanizing with Weng Weng in tow; this was more as an accessory, though. Perhaps the Weng Weng screen name came from the popular local cocktail made with rum, brandy, whiskey and pineapple juice, likely consumed while out on the town. However, even though the ladies often kissed or bedded Weng Weng in his movies, it seems that he was not afforded those privileges in real life, due to his size and circumstance.
Travelling around Manila, Leavold proves adept in his purpose, making fast friends with the colourful collection of directors, stuntmen, editors and other assorted players from the era. In drab looking shopping malls, or on outdoor stoops, they to do a lot of reminiscing about 'the old days' and drop the dirt on the Caballes often shaking their heads when reminiscing. The film goes one further, expanding it and contextualizing it to the business of power and politics in the Philippines and all roads lead to the long reign of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos. Talking heads do a little high-brow pontificating about the soul of the country, and the function of a court jester to expose ills and the ugliness of the regime in a comic way.
Cora herself is now a politician of some note, and her shift from cashing in on the exploitation cinema boom to public office (where the money is equally flowing, one can guess) put Weng Weng, amongst others, out of work in the late 1980s. One might make the leap of logic that this also, indirectly, lead to the diminutive actors death. And yet, Weng Weng seemed to have enjoyed his fame both local and abroad (making it to the 1982 Cannes Film festival) and clearly looks to be having a blast in the films, so nothing here is black and white. Showbiz can be a nasty business in any culture and any time period.
If there is one big miss on this otherwise deeply engaging and thoughtful documentary, it is not getting Cora Caballes on camera. This would have been a coup of sorts and a logical climax for the film. Instead she and her playboy husband remain silent spectres of the ugliness of the business in the same fashion as the corpse of former President Marcos still sits embalmed under glass (for 20 years or so) awaiting a state funeral.
We are instead allowed to witness to the surreal 80th birthday party of Imelda Marcos. Pageantry, shaping hearts and minds, and a little bit of catholic 'passion play' remain a cornerstone of filipino Cultural Centre, which, not coincidentally, is run by Imelda's daughter, Imee. Dame Imelda, 'The Steel Butterfly,' and her daughter prove chatty and adept on camera, and during the even, even place Leavold and his small documentary team at a table of honour. All the while telling the local media about the foreign press here to cover the big event.
The dozen or so Weng Weng films, from spaghetti westerns, to the 00 films (potentially six of them exist but only a couple are available) to various other rip-offs of money proven genres may are still vibrant to the cult of Weng Weng. For those of love the cheesy acting, off kilter narrative choices and bargain basement aesthetic of the era when Francis Ford Coppola, Roger Corman, and others were making films and pumping money into the Philippines economy for cheap access to jungle and military production value. This ground was covered with great energy and production value in Machete Maidens Unleashed! Leavold's research contributed to Mark Hartley's film in enough capacity to get him a Assosiate Producer credit on the 2009 documentary. But his own movie is a more intimate affair. Covering the life and legend of Weng Weng is more introspective, trashophile soul-searching and laced with a melancholy upon discovering various truths and circumstances in the young actor's strange, wild and short life.
The Search For Weng Weng ultimately rationalizes, perhaps for the best, that these films exist regardless of the attitudes and conditions they were made under many years ago. Like Song of the South, The Sentinel, and other films that appear shockingly politically incorrect today, they still remain cultural documents of a certain time and place. People are still watching and celebrating the work, hopefully deriving these pleasures not from a pace of malice. Andrew Leavold invites us all to do the same.