Fantasia International Film Festival 2014 runs July 17 to August 6. Follow all of our coverage here.
Once upon a time the Filipino film industry was second only to Hollywood in the number of films they released per year. That time was the ’70s and ’80s, but the odds are slim that you can even name a single locally-produced movie during that period. Pre and post Apocalypse Now the Philippines was the go-to locale for film productions looking for cheap crews, crazy stuntmen and geography that included everything from gorgeous jungles to bustling slums, but while foreign visitors churned out memorable features of varied quality local filmmakers struggled to make their mark beyond their own borders.
That changed in 1981 with a little film called For Y’ur Height Only and its even smaller star, Weng Weng. A James Bond spoof ostensibly for kids, the lead was a 2’9″ man trained in karate and the art of wooing the ladies, and it turned Weng into a sensation… for a while. He made millions for his producers and was the face of Filipino cinema, but he seemingly vanished as quickly as he had appeared. What happened to him, where had he come from, and how many of the stories about him — he was a stand-up comedian, a secret agent, an airport greeter — contained anything resembling the truth?
Australian film-lover and video store-owner Andrew Leavold needed answers to these questions and set off on a seven year journey to find them, a journey captured in the new documentary, The Search for Weng Weng. In case you’re wondering, of course his quest for information on a diminutive exploitation action star led him to celebrating Imelda Marcos’ birthday with her at the ex-First Lady’s mansion in the Philippines. I mean, obviously.
Weng Weng was not a dwarf and was instead properly proportioned for his size, and he’s actually listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as the shortest lead actor ever in a feature film. He did his own stunt work (when he wasn’t being doubled by a dummy) because stuntmen of similar stature were in short supply, and that added to his appeal as an action star (of sorts).
Ultimately, the search ends up revealing very little about the man who was Weng Weng. We learn his real name, meet his only surviving relative and discover that like too many “little” performers from decades past — Gary Coleman, Hervé Villechaize — the joy he brought to others was the inverse of what he felt himself. Instead the film finds its greatest traction in its exploration of the Filipino film industry itself around the time of Weng’s rise and fall in the public eye.
Leavold meets dozens of key players from the period — directors, actors and others — who share memories of Weng while simultaneously deconstructing the “wild west” atmosphere that was the Filipino film industry under Ferdinand Marcos’ rule. It was a different world down there, but for all that made it unique from the ins and outs of Hollywood at least one constant remained true… producers are “not filmmakers, they’re businessmen.” Suits screw the talent, and Weng’s story is sadly no different in that regard.
While time spent with Weng’s brother offers a small amount of heart in the story the film’s most odd and surreal highlight remains Leavold’s time with Imelda Marcos. It seems Weng was a guest at the Marcos’ estate during their reign, and we hear her talk about how Weng’s stardom proves the tenacity of the Filipino people. If a “distorted” guy like him could make it, then surely they could overcome any adversity in their own lives. Her delusion remains decades after she vacated the country’s highest office, and the only crack in her armor is glimpsed when she points out — as if to say “can you believe this?” — that a grand and elaborate chandelier in her home is actually broken.
While some interesting information is brought to light throughout the film there are some instances where more information feels sadly absent. We’re told that Weng had the lead role in upwards of six films, but only two ever really found a home outside of the country. Leavold reveals brief scenes and info about some of the remaining titles, but nothing is said as to their future international availability. (May I suggest as a bonus feature on this film’s eventual DVD release?)
The Search for Weng Weng is an engaging look at one man’s obsession and one nation’s brief dance in the cinematic spotlight, and it will most definitely appeal to genre fans and folks who thoroughly enjoyed the loving retrospective compilation, Machete Maidens Unleashed. It’s estimated that 80% of local Filipino cinema has “turned to vinegar” or been lost to a landfill over time, so much of its rich exploitative history may be gone forever. On the bright side though, recent films like Metro Manila and Graceland show that truly great cinema is currently being produced there.
The Upside: Andrew Leavold’s affection and love for cinema comes through beautifully; interesting insights into the Filipino film boom and bust; surreal visit with Imelda Marcos
The Downside: The film’s stated subject feels somewhat slighted; intriguing questions ignored in favor of lip service from Weng’s supposed friends
On the Side: “The Weng Weng Rap” by The Chuds can be viewed here.