22nd Jan2015

‘The Search for Weng Weng’ Review

by Mondo Squallido


It’s safe to say that a lot of my fellow cinephiles reading this have at least one cinematic obsession. You may devote a lot of time and money building up a library of films and merchandise relating to that specific obsession. Some devote Facebook pages, blogs and books to their cinematic pride and joy. Then of course you get people like Andrew Leavold. For around 15 years he owned Trash Video, Australia’s largest cult film rental shop. Not only that, but he is a filmmaker and of course, all round film nut. One of his upmost passions is Filipino cinema. So much so that he has lectured on the subject at universities all over the world and has a book on the subject soon to be released. His vast research on the subject even helped form the basis of Mark Hartley’s documentary, Machete Maidens Unleashed. Not only obsessed with the exploitation trash cinema of the area, Leavold also has a love for the Filipino answer to James Bond, Weng Weng. Coming in at 2′ 9”, he is the shortest actor to ever receive a leading role in film. Don’t let the size fool you however, in films such as For Y’ur Hight Only and Agent 00, he packs a punch and gives 007 a run for his money, kind of. So fascinated was Leavold by the pint-sized star, he decided to take the big step of flying to the Philippines and try to solve the mystery of the elusive Weng Weng. After years of research, passion and hard work we find ourselves here with Leavold’s feature length documentary, The Search for Weng Weng.

Making his journey to Manilla with next to no knowledge, even unaware if Weng Weng (we discover was born Ernesto de la Cruz) was still alive or not, Leavold had no idea what to expect, what he would discover or what journey he would be embarking on both in the physical and emotional sense. Unfortunately, Weng Weng had long since passed on, in 1992 as a matter of fact. Thankfully, locals, academics, members of the film industry back then (One Armed Executioner’s seemingly unaged star Franco Guerrero makes an appearance) and family members (even Imelda Marcos, wife of former president Ferdinand Marcos) are on hand to help put the pieces together and complete (as much as possible) a somewhat devastating account of an actor who shot to fame, was often exploited and ultimately died penniless. That’s not to say there isn’t any positivity in Weng Weng’s story. We get to hear some humorous and heart warming accounts along the way. A lot of people loved (and now miss) the pint-sized star. Not only that, but when the 1982 Manilla International Film Festival was set up (initially to promote more ‘high-brow’ efforts) the big star was of course Weng Weng and For Y’ur Height Only was a worldwide sensation.

What I enjoyed most about this documentary was the sheer passion coming through from not only Leavold, but those who seem more than happy to recount fragments of the life of Weng Weng. The interviews are laid back and the stories roll. The documentary has many a highlight. Hearing stories of Weng Weng being used by the police to gain entry in to buildings and chance meetings brought a smile. One of the main talking points is of course the meeting with Imelda Marcos. Seeing Leavold and his crew being invited to birthday celebrations and treated like VIP’s is very surreal indeed. Some have argued that he is of course being much too polite to Marcos considering that her husband was responsible for thousands of deaths under his regime, but people forget this isn’t a documentary about her or her husband, so why would you be hostile under those circumstances when you want to find out about something completely different? Let’s also not forget that there was no intention to interview her until the documentary was already in production. Another really nice touch that was a joy to behold happens within the final credits, I won’t say too much because it is a pleasant surprise to say the least. All I will say is that includes a screening held by Leavold.

In terms of style and presentation it’s simple, but effective. Archival clips and film excerpts are intercut with interview footage and scenes following Leavold the streets of Manilla. What I found to be a great touch was how the relevant clips of Weng Weng related films where used to illustrate the points being made by the relevant talking heads. Overall, the editing at the hands of not only Leavold, but Hayden Peters and James Scott is spot on. There are no slow parts to the documentary and there is not a segment out of place. It all comes together in a coherent way. Every now and then illustrations of Weng Weng created by Ronald Tan are used, and that’s a welcome addition. All in all, it may not be an elaborate production, but it works and it’s not exactly vital that this be a piece of high art documentary filmmaking.

Overall, The Search for Weng Weng is a wonderful experience. For fans of Weng Weng, this is a great insight in to a person that has captured the hearts of many a trash cinema fan. Even if you didn’t know Weng Weng existed prior to watching, you will come out of this satisfied and longing to purchase the few Weng Weng films currently available on home video. I can see myself watching this again in the future. It would work brilliantly as a companion piece to Machete Maidens Unleashed as well as being the first feature in a Weng Weng double bill (your weekend plans with friends are sorted now. You’re welcome!). Give this one a go if you are a lover of film in general, there is enough information about the Filipino cinematic history to satisfy. It’s a documentary that works on many angles. For me, I saw this as a very personal project for Andrew Leavold, a real piece of passionate cinema. I had been following the progress of this film through updates from Leavold as well as a nice production diary that is available to read in issue 4 of Weng’s Chop magazine (which I highly recommend reading), so to see the fruits of Leavold and his teams hard work on screen was an extremely satisfying experience to say the least. Hopefully, I haven’t given away too much because I want anyone reading this to go in to this documentary as blind as possible and be just as pleasently surprised as Leavold was with some of the discoveries made. A personal piece of filmmaking that stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of the cult film documentaries that are out there!

The Search for Weng Weng will be available on DVD from Monster Pictures on 26th January. If you can find it, there is an Australian 3-disc version, also from Monster Pictures.


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