In a world where global filmmaking is ever diminishing, it’s hard to imagine that in the early 1980s, the Philippines had one of the biggest filmmaking scenes out there, with around 300 films a year – almost all strictly for domestic consumption only – being released. It’s almost as hard to imagine that most of these films, unseen in the West, are now rotting away, already lost forever. And strangest of all is the fact that one of the few to break through to international audiences was a low budget, crudely produced James Bond spoof starring two foot nine ‘actor’ Weng Weng.
1981 film For Y’ur Height Only might not have exactly set the international box office on fire, but it did become a cult video hit, watched with amazement by VHS junkies always looking out for something crazier than anything they’d seen before. Among them was Andrew Leavold, Australian video store owner turned filmmaker, who developed an obsession with the movie and its diminutive star – an obsession that eventually led to a seven year question to track Weng Weng down. That storey is chronicled in this hugely entertaining documentary, which is as much about the uncharted worlds of Pinoy action cinema as the mysterious actor, and is in turn hilarious, surreal and moving.
Leavold’s quest to find out just who Weng Weng was seems doomed to failure initially, as the actor and his films have all but been removed from the official history of Filipino cinema – no one, it seems, even remembers the films or their star. But this collective amnesia breaks through a chance encounter with the film’s editor who reveals that Weng Weng appeared in numerous films – “maybe ten” – and sets in motion a number of meetings with veterans of the local exploitation movie scene, Weng Weng’s surviving family (it is clear very early on that Weng Weng himself is dead) and sets up a trail that eventually, bizarrely, leads to a meeting with Imelda Marcos, wife of the former dictator and a figure that the Filipino people seem to have a love-hate relationship with, her eccentricity and current harmlessness perhaps allowing memories of the bad old days of military dictatorship and human rights violations to be forgotten. As Leavold and his crew are taken to see the preserved but unburied body of the former leader of the country by his batty old wife, you can see the sense of amazement all round – who would’ve thought that an investigation into the obscure star of a handful of shoddy movies would’ve ever led to this?
As it turns out, Weng Weng was briefly a big deal. The Marcos connection includes an apparent stint working as some sort of government agent (life imitating art, clearly!) and for a while, he was a popular local celebrity. He was, of course, being ruthlessly exploited by his producers and minders Pete and Cora Caballes, who took all the money made from the films. When the work dried up – Weng’s success ended as quickly as it began, it seems – the small star was left penniless and quickly forgotten. He died in 1992 – primordial dwarfs rarely make it past 30 – and by then was pretty much unknown even in his home country.
This tale of unlikely stardom, exploitation (in all senses) and localised cinema eccentricity is told in an entertaining, well humoured manner by Levold, who is both narrator and on-screen investigator in this story. He has a dry wit that allows the commentary to mock the bizarre situations he finds himself in (his description of one hotel he stays in is priceless) while staying enthusiastic about the subject matter. He’s not here to mock Weng Weng, but neither is there that sense of condescending false respect that many a documentary covering ‘unusual’ people engages in. At no point does the film suggest that Weng was some great undiscovered star, and any condemnation of his exploitation by the Caballes comes from the mouths of those interviewed rather than through a film narrative. Indeed, at the end you wonder just how much Weng was exploited – by all accounts, he had fun making the movies and enjoyed his celebrity. He almost certainly had a better life than he might have otherwise expected, at least for a few years.
In the end, The Search for Weng Weng is more the search for the lost cinema history of the Philippines, a history the locals have done a frankly shocking job in preserving. Featuring interviews with actors and directors like Eddie Nicart, Bobby A Suarez and others, the film is a fascinating look at a world very few of us knew much about – while the odd Filipino actioner and horror movie would make it to international shores (the work of the late, great Eddie Romero for instance), most of the country’s output remains unseen globally – and now is unlikely to ever be seen, as film preservation doesn’t seem top of the local agenda. Even Weng Weng’s movies are mostly unavailable except in compromised prints. Still, you have to hold out hope that one day, enterprising distributors around the world will pick up the likes of Da Best in Da West, Wild Wild Weng and The Impossible Kid for wider distribution. The extensive clips featured in the documentary make all these films – as well as the astounding For Y’Ur Height Only – look outrageously mad.
The Search for Weng Weng is another is a growing list of excellent documentaries covering previously forgotten, localised film genres. Fans of movies like Not Quite Hollywood will love this, while anyone curious about the weirder side of cinema will be enthralled by Weng and his mad, mad movies.