Monday, January 13, 2014

The Search for Weng Weng (Australia, 2013)

To the cult film connoisseurs who will make up its core audience, The Search for Weng Weng has already become something of a legend. Directed by Andrew Leavold, founder of Australia’s largest cult video store and author of the indispensable blog Bamboo Gods and Bionic Boys, the film has been seven years in the making and at times seemed at risk of never being completed at all. There is no underestimating the power of obsession, however, as now, thanks to Leavold’s benign mania and the generosity of his supporters, The Search for Weng Weng is finally in the can and poised to make its festival debut.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I am among the many people thanked in The Search for Weng Weng’s closing credits -- and also that I see Leavold as very much a kindred spirit. Perhaps it’s in revolt against our own insignificance that chroniclers of international cult cinema like him and me weave entire histories from footnotes and, in so doing, strive quixotically to rescue our subjects from the grasp of obscurity. In any case, Leavold certainly presents himself a challenge with the diminutive Filipino spy spoof star Weng Weng, a figure whom, if anything, has become even more of an abstraction during the time it has taken Leavold to complete his film, thanks to numerous YouTube clips and novelties like The Chuds’ “Weng Weng Rap” going from being a human casting gimmick to a full blown meme and a punch line to a large number of people who would never, unless prompted, think to consider his humanity.

Though he likely needs no introduction to readers of this blog, I’ll simply say that the 2’9” Weng Weng, after being discovered by husband and wife producers Peter and Cora Caballes, became the star of a string of miniature spy spoofs that made him a sensation of sorts in the Philippines of the 1980s, while at the same time earning him a spot in the Guiness Book of Records as the most diminutive adult actor to appear as the lead in any film. When one of those films, 1981’s For Y’ur Height Only, got picked up for international distribution, Weng Weng, for better or worse, became for a time the most recognizable face of Filipino cinema outside the country’s borders. As Leavold notes in the introduction to his documentary, aside from these scant facts, little is known about the tiny performer beyond what we see on display in the handful of his films that survive; that being the image of a monumentally inexpressive, karate fighting homunculus with a tendency to punch his opponents in the groin before escaping between their legs.

Leavold, over the course of numerous visits to the Philippines -- whose bustling streets he films with an affectionate eye for gritty detail -- structures his excavation of Weng Weng’s past as a classic detective story, with us learning each new revelation, one piling on top of another, as he does. His interview subjects include many figures familiar to Filipino exploitation enthusiasts -- producer/director Bobby Suarez, the One Armed Executioner himself, Franco Guerrero, Silip’s Maria Isabel Lopez -- but it is often the grunts on the ground -- the stuntmen, gophers and grips -- from whom he gleans the most salient clues, among them an editor he stumbles upon completely by chance who turns out to have worked on most of Weng Weng’s movies. There are also, as with most investigations, a fair share of intriguing detours, the most surreal being a visit to the mansion of Imelda Marcos that sees the scruffy Leavold given the VIP treatment at a gala reception for the former first lady’s 83rd birthday. A tour of the grounds, conducted by Imelda herself, follows, during which we’re given a loving look at the glass entombed corpse of her dictator husband.

While displaying a healthy sense of humor about his own nerdy fixations, Leavold’s approach to his subject is refreshingly free of the snark one might expect, and is instead unapologetic about being what ultimately amounts to a serious, compassionate and rigorously competent work of investigative journalism. Given the lack of detail he starts with, the extent to which he is able to color in the broad outlines of Weng Weng’s life and career is remarkable. And despite some picaresque details -- like the possibility that Weng Weng may have actually been employed by the Filipino secret service -- the portrait that emerges is, not surprisingly, the more melancholy one that one might expect in a real world in which child-like, 2’9” tall men don’t typically get to woo a succession of beautiful women and fly around in jet packs.

At the same time, and by necessity, Leavold presents a larger portrait of the Philippines’ home grown, Tagalog language film industry that makes his film a welcome counterpoint to Mark Hartley’s fine Machete Maidens Unleashed (to which Leavold also contributed), which focused almost exclusively on the country’s American co-produced contributions to the international exploitation market. Given special focus are the concurrent waves of 1960s James Bond inspired spy pictures, like Tony Ferrer’s long running Tony Falcon series, and irreverent spoofs -- Dolphy vehicles like James Batman being an example-- that dovetailed into the Weng Weng phenomenon. He also touches interestingly upon those aspects of Filipino culture that immunized the makers of Weng Weng’s films from the kind of censure that, in the U.S., greeted Tod Browning’s Freaks, a frequently touched upon film that also exploited its featured performers’ real deformities.

One thing that Leavold comes up against repeatedly in his interviews is the sense that, to many in the Philippines today -- and especially among its cultural proponents -- Weng Weng and his films are something of an embarrassment (in fact, the incredulity of his interview subjects begins to become something of a running gag). A particular sore point seems to be the fact that, at the much touted 1982 Manila International Film Festival, despite the works of the country’s most respected filmmakers being on offer, the only Filipino property to be purchased for distribution outside the P.I. was For Y’ur Height Only. However, it is in this light that I think Leavold’s documentary offers a testament to the worthiness of international pop cinema (or what some, Leavold included, might call “trash” cinema) as a focus of close investigation.

For, indeed, Filipino masters like Lino Brocka might have striven earnestly to show the rest of the world -- or, in most cases, the more or less affluent, predominately white attendees of western art cinemas and film festivals -- what life is like for the Philippines’ impoverished masses. Yet it just might be that a film like For Y’ur Height Only offers us a clearer and less exclusive window into the hearts and minds of those masses. What we then see is both a cheerful lack of pretension and a pronounced generosity of spirit, combined with what Imee Marcos calls the propensity of Filipinos to “turn pain into ridicule”. Given how poignantly The Search for Weng Weng drives this point home, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to consider documentaries like it and Machete Maidens Unleashed as standing alongside “serious” works like Eleanor Coppola’s chronicle of the production of Apocalypse Now, Hearts of Darkness as essential filmic records of the Philippines’ cinematic history. You, of course, might not agree, but that shouldn’t stop you from seeing this film at the soonest opportunity.


Chengfaust said...

Hey there Todd,
good article, it was a nice read. I didn't really follow the creation, to be honest never heard of it until a few days ago, of "The Search For Weng Weng" but after I read your article about it I did some research and found several videos by Andrew Leavold on youtube, when the documentary is done with the same amount of enthusiasm and passion like his other videos/internet-projects I really must see this documentary. It's great to see that Andrew was able to fulfill his dream of creating once and for all an essential and comprehensive piece of movie-history documentation about Weng Weng. I wish I would have known earlier so I could have contribute my part to this whole project by using the Kickstarter-campaign.

Do you know if there is going to be an DVD-release of the documentary?

Greetings chengfaust

Chengfaust said...

Alright people,
I found out that Monster Pictures will release the documentary on DVD!


Ringard Willycat said...

Great Weng Weng