by Kelly Vance
Try to picture a diminutive man in a tiny all-white suit and matching white shoes, hurtling around Manila on a pint-sized motorcycle and packing an appropriately dainty submachine gun, as an agent of the Philippine government on the trail of a mysterious gang of villains. Not only can he beat up full-sized assailants three at a time with his karate moves, but he parachutes off hotel rooftops and shinnies down drainpipes in stunts that would impress Jackie Chan. Also, he’s irresistible to women. That little guy is Weng Weng, the late, great Filipino action-movie star of the 1980s whose life story is finally being told on screen, in Andrew Leavold’s bright, energetically entertaining documentary The Search for Weng Weng , screening this weekend at SF Indiefest.
For a petite fellow (he stood 2’9”) who’s been dead for 22 years, Weng Weng enjoys a big reputation today among the legion of film fanatics whose taste runs to drive-in exploitationers, cult oddities, and hard-to-find domestic films from Third World countries. Filmmaker Leavold first became a fan at the video shop he owned in Brisbane, Australia. There was something special about Weng Weng’s combination of deadpan facial expression and the films’ slapstick spoofing of the James Bond spy formula. Admiration grew into obsession, and eventually Leavold went to the Philippines with a film crew to track down the story of the wee action hero, whom most Filipino movie fans have apparently forgotten.
Once on the ground in the funky Metro Manila barangay (district) of Baclaran in Parañaque City, Leavold’s quest to learn more about Weng Weng becomes a crash course in the Filipino point of view, and how the impoverished, stunted-at-birth son of a laundrywoman and an electrician fits into the capital’s helter-skelter pop culture scene. Turns out he’s more than just a figure of fun.
In the ‘70s and early ‘80s—ironically, the time of President Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law—the Philippine film industry was cranking out a record number of movies for local theaters, most of them audience-pleasing genre items: horror, romance (including sexy bomba flicks), comedies (typified by down-home funnyman Rodolfo “Dolphy” Quizon), and the ever-popular martial-arts/spy/tough-guy “goon” vehicles for such action stars as Tony Ferrer, Fernando Poe Jr., Joseph “Erap” Estrada (the latter two emulated Ronald Reagan and went into presidential politics), and Ramon Zamora, the “Bruce Lee of the Philippines.” The Search for Weng Weng doubles as a nutshell history of late-20th-century Philippine popular cinema.
As always, Filipinos enjoyed/endured a symbiotic, love-envy relationship with Hollywood and all things American. It was the US who rescued the Philippines from 333 years of Spanish colonial rule and temporarily put it under the influence of John Wayne, Rita Hayworth, and drunken yankee sailors. H’wood filmmakers from Roger Corman to Francis Ford Coppola to Oliver Stone flocked to the Philippines for its cheap labor costs and experienced craftspersons, and Manila returned the favor by imitating top-grossing American product, with a touch of island flavor and hometown talent.
Many of Weng Weng’s contemporaries are still alive, hanging out in mall food courts and eager to reminisce with any bearded, overweight Ozzie who points a camera in their direction. Leavold interviews actors Rez Cortez, Roland Dantes, and Marie “Cleopatra Wong” Lee; Weng Weng’s directors Dante “Boy” Pangilinan and Eddie Nicart; and film editor Edgardo “Boy” Vinarao, who cut all six of the films the miniature superstar made as a leading man. Along the way, we visit the vaults of TV network ABS-CBN, in effect the country’s only true film archive. It’s a fact of life that the tropical heat and humidity, combined with an easy-come, easy-go attitude on the part of film studios, have allowed the vast majority of movies produced by the country’s once-vibrant industry to decompose.
There are those who disparage the Weng Weng phenomenon. At the University of the Philippines, Leavold finds a grumpy Teutonic academic named Tilman Baumgärtel, who thinks casting a little person as a super-spy unfairly makes sport of disabled people. This, in a place where social services are not ubiquitous, and blind and disabled folks often earn a few pesos singing and playing music on ferry boats and street corners. Let him feel uncomfortable if he wants. Weng Weng found a way to make a living.
Actor Cortez admits that initially he laughed at the sight of the childlike actor. “What’s this Weng Weng?” recalls Cortez of their first meeting. “Is he a toy? But I realized he’s human. He’s a person, a very sad person.” In a period interview, frequent costar Dolphy attests that it was considered “lucky” to have Weng Weng in a movie’s cast. Director Pangilinan agrees: “The luck flows through to me [from Weng Weng]. God’s will.”
At some point in Leavold’s film, we come face-to-face with the Philippines’ Roman Catholic notions of mercy, pity, and empathy. Early on, pitiful little Weng Weng (at birth he was the size of a Pepsi-Cola bottle, says his brother) became a symbol of hope and devotion for his family and neighbors, even taking part in religious processions. Declares one relative: “A lot of people like him and believe he’s a living Santo Niño [the image of the Christ Child].” Maybe it was his calm, quietly suffering demeanor and his earnest steadfastness. Notes screenwriter Bobby Suarez: “He’s a lovable guy, but not a funny guy.”
Leavold pads out the doc with generous clips from such hits as Chopsuey Met Big Time Papa , Agent 00 , The Impossible Kid of Kung Fu , and Da Best in Da West (a western parody costarring Dolphy). And just as the pace begins to flag, the doc suddenly detours to the northern provincial capital of Laoag, stronghold of the Marcos clan, for a visit with notorious former first lady Imelda “Imeldific” Marcos. In the midst of dispensing bromides about “the great Filipino spirit” and remembering how Weng Weng was her frequent guest at Malacañang presidential palace, the widow Marcos strikes a familiar chord, noting that Filipinos “can make a hero of a disabled, distorted guy. He could make us laugh and make us happy. To have almost nothing and then to make people happy.”
Mrs. Marcos might not have been terrifically happy in the aftermath of her inaugural Manila International Film Festival in 1983. Instead of the prestigious historical epic Oro, Plata, Mata (whose director, Peque Gallaga, shows up as one of Leavold’s talking heads), the only Philippine movie acquired for worldwide distribution at the festival was the lowbrow laffmobile For Y’ur Height Only , starring you-know-who. Weng Weng was boffo all over the world. He even went to Cannes.
One of the reasons Weng Weng had almost nothing even while starring in hit movies was his questionable relationship with Pete and Cora Caballes, the principals of Liliw Productions, who made and distributed Weng Weng’s pics. According to Leavold’s witnesses, the Caballeses “adopted” their unsophisticated star, never paid him a salary, and treated him like a lap dog at their mansion, where he was called upon to entertain at parties. Later, after his star faded and he suffered a stroke, Weng Weng was deposited back at the Pawid-leaf shack where he was born, and where he died of cardiac arrest at age 34.
The life and suffering of Weng Weng—real name: Ernesto de la Cruz—evidently arouses spiritual feelings in his pinoy fans. Fellow actor Rez Cortez believes that Weng Weng did not really expect or need the usual star treatment. “For him it was a blessing,” says Cortez. “It was better than what he was used to. But he deserved more.” Imee Marcos, daughter of the late dictator, offers a surprisingly circumspect analysis of the bite-sized idol and his rough treatment by business types. “This is exactly what Filipinos do,” notes Marcos. “We transform our pain into ridicule and ultimately it becomes manageable in human terms. So, I suppose, we shrunk the goon!” Amable “Tikoy” Aguiluz, director of the Cinemanila International Film Festival, takes a slightly more defiant approach to explaining the “Saint Weng Weng” impulse: “That’s our dirty finger to Hollywood. We can do it, he’s our guy. No budget. Piano wire. Real stunts, no CGI. The freak came out. I am the guy!”
The Search for Weng Weng plays as part of the 2015 SF Indiefest on Sunday, February 8, 2:45 p.m., at the Roxie Theater, followed by Weng Weng’s For Y’ur Height Only at 5:00 p.m. The 17th annual SF Indiefest has lots more in store for adventurous film fanatics. Visit SFIndie.com for full details and updates. Click here to read a preview of three mouth-watering features EatDrinkFilms.com is co-presenting.