Saturday, August 02, 2014

Fantasia ’14: The Search for Weng Weng

It might be hard to imagine Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos rolling out the red carpet for a two foot-nine inch martial arts film star, but it makes sense when you consider how much money Weng Weng’s films made. In the early 1980s he was the Philippines’ top cinematic export—and there really wasn’t a number two behind him. Cult film connoisseur Andrew Leavold set out to discover the unvarnished truth about the ironic icon, while grappling with the obvious issues of exploitation as best he could in The Search for Weng Weng (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival.

The man born Ernesto de la Cruz will always be best known as Agent 00 in For Y’ur Height Only. As seen in Mark Hartley’s Machete Maidens Unleashed, it has become a word of mouth favorite amongst midnight movie patrons. While investigating Weng Weng’s whereabouts, Leavold confirmed a number of earlier featured appearances by his subject, including a film starring future president Joseph Estrada.

Many of the Philippines’ established film scholars and critics are uncomfortable talking about Weng Weng, because they consider his films the cinematic equivalent of a carnival sideshow. However, Leavold found some people who were happy to talk about the Guinness record holding actor, such as his former co-stars and director, as well as fans Imelda Marcos and her daughter, Governor Imee Marcos.

Of course, Search is all about weird cinema, but Leavold’s considerable time spent with Imelda reveals much about the current state of Filipino society and politics. Clearly, she still considers herself the nation’s First Lady-in-spirit, but you cannot call her delusional because there seem to be an awful lot of people who agree with her. It is a heavy thing to say, but Leavold’s footage of her might just be stranger than the Weng Weng movies that brought him to the Philippines in the first place. Yet, nobody can say she is not a gracious hostess.

On the other hand, there is one person conspicuously missing from Search: Cora Caballes, who produced Weng Weng’s films with her late husband. It is his relationship with the Caballeses that most directly raises questions of exploitation, including issues of fair compensation, or lack thereof.

Through interviews with old school movie business veterans, Leavold conveys a vivid sense of the Philippines heyday as an unregulated haven for low movie production. He also achieves closure in his quest to determine whatever became of Weng Weng, but his fate holds few real surprises. It will sound like a bit of cliché, but the journey is what is important in Search, rather than the ultimate destination.

Along the way, Leavold tantalizes viewers with truly bizarre film clips, while treating his subject with scrupulous sensitivity. It is a tricky balance to maintain, but he pulls it off. The result is a big, entertaining valentine to B- movies that opens a strangely insightful window into the contemporary Philippines. Highly recommended for anyone who appreciates the ragged glory of offbeat cinema, The Search for Weng Weng screens again on Monday (8/4), as part of this year’s Fantasia.