Weng Weng is a hard act to follow. I suspect no one knows that better than Andrew Leavold, who directed 2013’s The Search for Weng Weng, an at once fascinating, touching, and hilarious documentary about the Philippines' notorious three foot tall action star. Yet follow Weng Weng Leavold has, co-directing--with his Search for Weng Weng co-writer Daniel Palisa--The Last Pinoy Action King, a documentary about the beloved Filipino action star Rudy Fernandez. Now, Fernandez is a star about whom I know little to nothing (I haven’t even seen one of his films), but I chose not to do any preliminary research in order that I might better judge how well the film makes a case for his importance. Also, I’m lazy as fuck.
I should say first off that King is a much more conventional documentary than its predecessor. Telling the story of Fernandez, a superstar whose life story was amply documented in the media of his day, requires far less excavation than Weng Weng’s—with the result that, as opposed to Search’s labyrinthine detective yarn, King is much more of a straightforward tribute, told through numerous talking head interviews with family, friends and colleagues. Consequently, Leavold contents himself with remaining a behind-the-scenes presence here and does not appear on screen. This diminution of the “hero’s journey” aspect seen in Search (let us pause while Joseph Campbell spins in his grave), of course, renders less likely the occurrence of those happy flukes—like Leavold being granted a sit down interview with Imelda Marcos—that gave Search a lot of its unexpected charm.
By all this, I’m not trying to say that Leavold’s absence from the screen is a strike against The Last Pinoy Action King; no one is expecting him to become the Michael Moore of Filipino cult movie documentaries, after all. It’s just something that I think fans of The Search for Weng Weng would want to know going in. I think it’s also salient that what Leavold and Palisa do bring over from the previous film is a tendency to use their subject as a jumping off point from which to paint a much broader picture of Filipino popular cinema as a whole, which makes this film every bit as essential for world pop cinema fans as Search was. (I should also mention here that Andrew and I are longtime internet friends, though I have repeatedly missed out on opportunities to meet him in person.)
Using the aforementioned interviews, along with plentiful film and television clips, Leavold and Palisa reconstruct Fernandez’s rise to fame. Coming from an entertainment industry family (his father was prolific golden age director Gregorio Fernandez), Fernandez, who is known to family and fans alike as “Daboy”, signed with Sampaguita Pictures in 1970. After an unfulfilling run as a romantic lead, he finally made his mark as an action star with 1976’s Bitayin si… Baby Ama!, in which he portrayed real life criminal Marcial “Baby” Ama. From there, he went on to star in a string of successful features that made him, at his peak, second only to Fernando Poe Jr. as the Philippines greatest action star.
Indeed, FPJ casts a long, generously muttonchopped shadow over The Last Pinoy Action King, on account of him being both a towering figure in Filipino popular cinema and a pioneer of the then prevalent turn toward independent film production (Sampaguita, at the time of signing Fernandez, was the last surviving of the Philippine’s “Big Four” major studios). At the same time, it is easy to see Fernandez as a departure from the cinematic archetype that Poe had established. With his delicate features and quiet demeanor (interviewee after interviewee describes him as “shy”), Fernandez stood in stark contrast to Poe’s brute masculinity, and as such became something of a teen idol in addition to a scrappy hero of the people.
When considering Rudy Fernandez’s career, it’s difficult for me not to compare him to Indian superstar Amitabh Bachchan. Both men reached their peak of fame at a time when their countries were under martial law, and thus allowed their audiences, suffering under the constraints of despotic rule, to rebel vicariously through them. Like Bachchan, who embodied the archetype of the “angry young man”, Fernandez was consistently cast as an enraged everyman fighting against corrupt authorities and venal fat cats. Also like Bachchan, he capitalized on his populist appeal by entering politics in middle age, making an unsuccessful bid to become the mayor of Quezon City in 2001.
Though Fernandez stirred up a minor tabloid scandal with his live-in relationship with teenage “Bomba” actress Alma Moreno, his off-screen life appears to have been pretty tame—and no interviewee in The Last Pinoy Action King will describe him as anything but exemplary. Indeed, if the film could be said to have one major flaw, it is the fault of Rudy Fernandez himself and not of the creatives behind it: He was just too nice. One person after another tells us that, as a friend, he was loyal to a fault, as the president of the Actors Guild, a fierce champion of workers’ rights, and to his longtime spouse, actress Lorna Tolentino, an ideal husband. You might think that this would make it easy to dismiss the film as a hagiography--but, given that Leavold, with The Search for Weng Weng, managed the mean feat of being both affectionate and relentlessly probing, I find it highly unlikely that he would skew his narrative in such a fashion. Nonetheless, I wonder if it is terrible to wish that the actor had at least one unseemly flaw so that the story of his life might have a little more spice. Probably.
On the positive side, it is this ubiquitous adoration that makes the account of Fernandez’s premature death, from a particularly aggressive cancer in June of 2008, all the more moving. It is clear that he is still deeply missed by most who knew him and that his death was a cruel blow from which many of them are still recovering (superstar Sharon Cuneta’s stricken recounting of his painful last days is especially heartbreaking.) This section of the film is exemplary of how Leavold and Palisa commendably let the story be told by the participants themselves, without the aid of cinematic device. It is in this way that The Last Pinoy Action King, while perhaps a less “gonzo” film than The Search for Weng Weng, is arguably a more mature one. Whether you prefer that or not is up to you. To me, it’s a symptom of versatility that bodes well for the future of both men as filmmakers worth watching.