Dir- Andrew Leavold
Out NOW from Monster Pictures UK.
Exploitation cinema can offer up some surprises and it’s these moments that you seek out or you stumble upon which leave you aghast and wanting to let people know, no matter if they care at all for some of the most ridiculous and outrageous cinema you have witnessed. Andrew Leavold is one such film buff who after stumbling upon a Philippine made James Bond spoof FOR Y’UR HEIGHT ONLY, became instantly hooked on the picture and in particular its star, a guy at the height of 2 feet 9 inches, known as Weng Weng. Leavold as we see in the opening scenes of this documentary has an obvious enthusiasm for this film and for the exploitation genre in general, as we see him introducing an audience in Australia to the films of Weng Weng. Yet THE SEARCH FOR WENG WENG, is much more than just about one man’s obsession to find a star, sadly now dead, and to trace his history, where he came from and what happened after his film career, than it’s about the exploitation film industry in the Philippines and the extreme and often troubling conditions that the films where made under, that despite producing some outlandish and wild cinema, a dubious regime under the country’s political climate and starring actors who where more or less exploitated for the way they looked.
Born Ernesto De La Cruz in Manila, Weng Weng was brought up under poor conditions only to be discovered at a martial arts dojo by film producing husband and wife, Peter and Cora Caballes who immediately recognised his talent and took him under their wing, putting them up in their house and then putting him to work as a comic sidekick in films. He was cast as Agent OO in a spoof on the James Bond films most notably in the aptly and comically titled FOR Y’UR HEIGHT ONLY, which gained Weng Weng a massive following in his home country and a cult following abroad. The Cabelles did work him though, often having Weng Weng do his own stunts, remember that this is the exploitation film industry and especially in the Philippines actors would do their own stunts or action scenes where performed without the banner of health and safety.
Yet despite brief success in his agent OO series of films, a star attraction to Western Attendees of the 1982 Philippine film festival and an eventual visit to Cannes, success was short lived (pardon the pun) and Weng Weng found himself pretty much out of work at the end of the 80’s living back in his hometown of the Manila, and unfortunately broke and died, possibly of tainted shellfish, in 1992, leading us to see how one recognisable star achieved fame and recognition, albeit at the hands of some people willing to exploit his diminutive stature, but enjoyed his time in the starlight, yet sadly like any bleak showbiz story ended up succumbing to a bum note of unemployment and poverty and eventual passing that wasn’t fully recognised, with his grave, now in a cemetery occupied by people who live there and use his gravestone to hold laundry lines.
This bleak tone is not present throughout the film, and Leavold does a good job of going around the Philippines and meeting various editors and stuntmen, all enthusiastic and surprised by the director’s quest to find the story behind Weng Weng. His encounters are some of the highlights of the film with many former crew workers recounting story’s of Weng Weng and also the circumstances and story of the Cabelles who come across as people willing to exploit their subject and a couple with an obvious rocky foundation and marriage (Peter Cabelles would like to go out drinking and womanising usually with Weng Weng in tow, with his wife fully aware of his extra marital vices). Though one of the most interesting encounters is when Leavold and his film crew are invited to interview wife of former President Marcos, Imelda Marcos, and invited to the film the surreal site of her 80th birthday party and even being placed at a table close to the former leader’s wife as guests of honour. It also creates one starkly contrasting and haunting image of the sight of President Marcos’s body, entombed and embalmed in a glass coffin and still awaiting a state funeral. This is where the surreal and often contrasting sides of the exploitation film industry come into play.
Much of the genre cinema from the Philippines was driven by Imelda Marcos who wanted to create a model of her country as a centre for the arts and a place for the film industry to use its resources, leading to many American filmmakers such as Roger Corman to use the cheap locations and film crews on offer. These films where created in a period or political regime that was enforcing martial law for almost a decade between 1972 and 1981, partly in a desperate attempt by President Marcos to hold onto power, and a regime also considered very dubious and extreme in its practices. Yet the wife of the great leader was proposing Philippines to be a centre of the arts and for her to lead this cultural revolution. They also find there star in Weng Weng, who was a great attraction yet even this diminutive man was also a contrasting part of the exploitation film industry, someone who had his statue used or exploited and yes Weng Weng may have fully known that his small height was his main star power, and possibly went along with it, but as some film scholars pointed out even though many saw Weng Weng as a hero, they still felt a slight bit of embarrassment that there main cultural export was a small man in a James Bond spoof. One cultural commentator goes as far as to say in the documentary that he is ashamed of these films and that they are trite exploitation at its worst.
Leavold has crafted an interesting documentary here, which as well as looking at the life of a unique actor, also takes a look at the eventual downside of fame and the inevitable sad lonely end it can have for some. It also is a good insight into the Philippine exploitation/genre film industry and makes an excellent companion alongside Mark Hartley’s superb MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED, for which Leavold was credited as an associate producer for. A unique and often interesting documentary looking at one man’s obsession with some of the world’s most unique and bizarre cinema, THE SEARCH FOR WENG WENG is definitely worth a watch and one that will reward you with repeat viewings.