The Wild, Wild Weng Weng
Written by Bob Baker Fish
Weng Weng is small. Andrew Leavold is much bigger, but has a small Weng Weng on his arm. Confused? Nothing is straightforward when you enter the world of Filipino exploitation cinema. Weng Weng, the diminutive star of classic z-grade James Bond rip offs For Y’ur Height Only and The Impossible Kid became an obsession for Leavold, and it’s easy to understand why, karate kicking baddies in the kneecaps, jumping out of tall buildings with only a handkerchief for a parachute, whilst fearlessly snaring bad guys and getting the girl, Weng Weng is a man for all seasons. With Leavold launching a kick-starter campaign and holding screenings around the country, Bob Baker Fish took the opportunity to ask the maker of The Search For Weng Weng the most important question. Why?
Can I begin by asking when you first encountered Weng Weng?
It must have been the dim dark days of the early Nineties on a fourth or fifth generation bootleg VHS tape. That’s how we did things back then. I remember seeing For Y’ur Height Only. It was a sunny afternoon I recall. I remember seeing this little karate-kicking midget and couldn’t believe what I was watching. It was just so foreign, so alien, so completely compelling that I instantly formed this weird bond, or connection with Weng Weng, that I instantly wanted to know where he was from, what his real name was, what happened to him, whether he was alive or dead. Back in the early 90’s there was no such thing as the internet and I’d scour books on foreign films and not a mention of the Philippines, and especially not Weng Weng. It was almost like this country was second rate and even if it was given attention, something like Weng Weng wouldn’t even warrant a footnote. So I started digging as much as I could. At first through the internet, then actually ringing Manila trying to get some kind of information from cultural bodies who treated me like a madman. They were like ‘who is this white guy calling from Australia wanting to know about our national shame?’
Aren’t you a madman? I’m not sure how wrong they were.
Well the film will speak for itself. The film is about obsession and madness and taking those obsessions to the most ludicrous of extremes. So I guess I’m the subject in my own documentary as well as Weng Weng. And this weird obsession that goes through the mists of time, different cultures, continents even. But you’re right, I’m completely bonkers and I should be locked up. Or I should be given government grants.
Well my first experience of seeing the films was a couple of years ago. For Y’ur Height Only and the sequel The Impossible Kid. I didn’t know what the hell I was watching. How many films has he been in?
Well when I first went to Manila in 2006 I’d seen those two films and there were rumours of a western called Da Best In Da West. I though a Weng Weng western? That’s absurd. But it turns out there were two Weng Weng westerns, Da Best In Da West and D’ Wild Wild Weng. I thought okay this is great; there are four Weng Weng films. No. There are twelve. Three of which were dubbed into English and were exported and nine were in Tagalog language only and were only ever seen in the Philippines. There are more than two Agent 00 films. So twelve and still counting.
There may be more?
There may be more. I’ve just gotta get a bigger shovel.
Can you tell me about the response in the Philippines to his career? Is it something they want to forget about?
Maybe within the cultural elites, something like Weng Weng is an embarrassment, purely because they would prefer to be known for their art films, their successes at overseas film festivals and not for their midget kung fu films. There is a real cultural cringe within the cultural elites. When I first went there in 2006 they looked at me like I was a lunatic and now I’m lecturing at universities. Teaching them about midget kung fu films. Now that’s crazy.
Who made these films? Where did they come from?
At first I looked at For Y’ur Height Only like it had emerged from a vacuum. Like that film couldn’t possibly have been seriously sat down and planned or written with any kind of audience in mind because it seemed like it was so far out of leftfield, it was such an oddity. But as I started to dig through the lower strata of Philippine cinema, through the road less travelled by film historians you find that there are midgets in lots of films from the Philippines. There are parodies of James Bond films, of Westerns, of just about every Hollywood genre that you would want to name. Philippines has a real copycat industry, probably because of its colonial background. They have this real need to dip their hat to their colonial masters while at the same time stick a butterfly knife into their side. It’s this simultaneous process of reverence and ambush. So if you look at For Y’ur Height Only as a $50,000 miniature version of a James Bond film that ended up selling all over the world and out-grossing a Star Wars film in 1982 in the West Indies, that is the biggest fuck you to Hollywood that I could ever put forward. You can really look at these films as revolutionary acts. They may look ‘small and very petite like a potato,’ to quote For Y’ur Height Only, but there is definitely something going on in there.
They actually made money?
They not only made money, but fucktonnes of money. For Y’ur Height Only was made for under $50,000. And was sold at the Manilla film festival in 1982 and made more than any of the other films that was put forward into the film market. It made seven times as much money as any of those other films. It made in excess of one million dollars for the producers. Maybe not for Weng Weng, but the producers ended up with two mansions as a result of this film.
So have you been able to track down the people who made these films?
Yep. I’ve tracked down pretty much everyone who’s worked with Weng Weng who’s still alive. That’s all part of the madness. The way that these people suddenly appeared is bizarre – Weng Weng’s editor, I ran into in a car park. I just happened to mention I was making a film about Weng Weng and he said ‘I edited all his films.’ I said ‘Holy shit you edited the three Weng Weng films?’ He said ‘there’s more than ten,’ I said ‘aaaargh.’ But even he couldn’t tell me what Weng Weng’s real name was. Then one of the voices in the film I ran into outside the film academy and he said ‘yeah, the film that brought me to the Philippines was Apocalypse Now,’ he was half African-American, half Filipino. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘the film that brought me to the country was For Yur Height Only,’ and he said ‘Holy Shit I was one of the voices on that. Yeah we just got drunk and stoned for three days and made it up as we went along.’ I was like ‘that explains it.’ Why the dubbing on For Yur Height Only it takes what seriously is an absurd film and escalates it into a completely different dimension.
It escalates. There’s no question about that.
It’s a vary self-aware parody of itself. And it’s parodying Hollywood as well as Filipino spy films and westerns, which are in themselves knock-offs of spaghetti westerns which are knock-offs of Hollywood. So it’s incredibly dense once you start getting into the muck of Filipino film. You don’t mind getting dirty but you can find a lot of gold in the river of shit.
So what did Weng Weng take out of this? Did he do all right financially?
He got screwed. He is the story of the Philippines in miniature form. If you look at the Philippine film industry as a place that foreigners would come and exploit and thrown on the scrap heap once they’d outlived their usefulness then Weng Weng is very much a metaphor for the Filipino film industry. Producers managed to make an enormous amount of money in a very short period of time and then decided that Weng Weng was no longer needed. So he was sent home, after maybe three or four years of being a little superstar.
Almost over night, one of the producers, Cora Caballes, decided to enter politics. So they quite the movie industry and Weng Weng was sent home. Even up until then he had been making pocket money while the Caballes were amassing their small fortune. Even if he did earn pocket money he would still give it away to everyone around him, because that’s the kind of person her was. He was truly a little innocent who had the mental capacity of a five year old. So you can look at the film as exploitation of a very real kind, exploitation of its star.
He then went downhill very rapidly after that. He started drinking because he had nothing else to do. He still thought of himself as a star but everyone had forgotten him. Pop culture had moved on by that stage. He ended up dying a very lonely death in a small cupboard under the staircase, because he had a stroke and couldn’t walk up the flight of stairs. He eventually died of heart stoppage after eating bad crab.
Shit exactly. So as I’m piecing together this story of Weng Weng, you go from this image of a karate-kicking midget at the start of the film, as you learn his story piece by piece, he becomes heartbreakingly human, and when you meet his brother and he takes you through his story it’s heartbreaking. I genuinely believe there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
Were you prepared for the turn that it took?
I never thought I would make it to Manila. That came about because I was doing a screening of They Call Her Cleopatra Wong at the Brisbane Film Festival and they happened to have Tikoy Aguiluz from the Cinemanila film festival on the jury that year. He saw my I Heart Weng Weng t-shirt, saw Cleopatra Wong sitting next to me in the cinema and said ‘holy shit this woman is royalty in my country. I love Weng Weng too.’ I said ‘Who the fuck are you?’ He said ‘come to Manilla.’
So four months later I’m filming an audience in a cinema in Manila after showing a cut up of Weng Weng and other Filipino B films and I said I’m starting a documentary does anyone know what happened to Weng Weng? There was a sea of empty faces, I was like ‘oh shit,’ they didn’t even know what I was talking about. I’m from 8,000 miles away and I’m telling them about their pop culture they’d forgotten or they never knew in the first place. That’s weird.
So the film is finished?
The film is in the can. That’s why we’re doing a Kickstarter campaign so that we can afford to bring it up to release standard. We had a rough cut filming at the Brisbane film festival in 2007 but that was a very rough composite, which then allowed us to take the unfinished film to ABC film for commissioning. They said that’s great; we love it so much we want to change it. We want to get that nice young man from Not Quite Hollywood to do a Not Quite Manilawood. So I had to watch the whole Weng Weng project turn into Not Quite Hollywood part 2 with me taking a serious demotion. So that left The Search for Weng Weng in limbo for at least three years while Machete Maidens Unleashed went thru funding, release DVD release and festival appearances. And so finally it had done its course the Brisbane producer said you can have The Search For Weng Weng back, do with it what you will. So we thought we could either go down the funding route again, which means probably losing control of the picture again, or go completely DIY: hook up with Monster Picture as a distributor and use crowd funding as a way of having complete creative control over the project. I should have done that in the first place, but Kickstarter didn’t exist in 2007. This is the Filipino way of doing it stealthily, ninja-like.
So do you feel a bit bitter about the Machete Maidens Experience?
Bitter? No. More gun shy. Very wary of going down the Screen Australia/ Screen Queensland/ ABC route ever again. I think the idea of private funding and having already established relationships with distributors is a much more powerful tool than relying on funding. I think most Australian filmmakers are guilty of compromising their art for the sake of the government paycheck. I know this is the lament of most of the genre filmmakers who say we’d really like to make something unique and nasty and yet the funding bodies are telling us to make another Wolf Creek. I think this is a more comfortable way for me to go down because I’m not a mainstream filmmaker by any stretch of the imagination. I know that what I do is niche but going with a boutique label like Monster allows you to have control and create a niche product that is for people that really appreciate a niche product, like a documentary on a dead midget.
A dead Filipino midget.
The screening that we’re doing is like a sneak peek. We’re playing chunks of the documentary, I’m doing a talk around it, saying where the footage sits in context of the documentary and then screening the western D’Wild Wild Weng. I’d say watching that for the first time it’s gonna be a surreal experience because it’s a crazy film. Weng Weng with a Gatling gun three times the size of him mowing down 40 rows of Filipino goons in sombreros. It’s like the Wild Bunch, meanwhile there’s hoards of pygmy Indians who are actually waiters from a dwarf themed restaurant in Manila called Hobbit House pouring over the horizon with toy bows and arrows. Oh my God you’ve never seen anything like this.
How is it that this hasn’t been distributed in Australia?
Well For Y’ur Height Only and The Impossible kid came out through Umbrella around the time of Machete Maidens and that also prompted Cleopatra Wong and The One Armed Executioner through Monster. The Filipino film had a brief moment in the sun because of Machete Maidens, but it was never really followed up, it was only going to be a flash in the pan. But there is literally a wealth of undiscovered film over there in the Philippines that I’ve been writing about for years, and I’ve tried to put in the documentary as well. You’ve heard about One Armed Executioner but have you seen the gay satanic biker film called W Is War?
I’d assumed Machete Maidens would have opened it up and paved the way for these films. Surely it will pave the way for The Search For Weng Weng?
It should. Really audiences were only given half a mouthful of Weng. Which of course leaves the opportunity for us to come in and full the void with the Weng Weng story. One of the criticisms of the film is that it briefly mentions people like Bobby Suarez and Weng Weng almost as an afterthought whereas the bulk of the film is talking about Roger Corman, who admittedly made about ten films in the Philippines during the 70’s but what about the rest? What about all the other films that were being made by people other than Corman?
It’s a very myopic documentary and Corman-centric look at the Philippines. Purely because Mark was only interested in talking with Roger Corman that was the only reason he took the project on. He doesn’t have any love for Philippine cinema other than the ones that Corman did. That comes across in the documentary too, it’s very cold when it comes to Philippines, it’s more comfortable when talking to the Americans to exploit the Philippines.
Well I think that’s what the film was about, the exploitation.
Also if you look at the film itself it’s all talking heads. There’s no footage of the actual Philippines, you never get sense of what the country is actually like, the setting the films were produced in. One thing that you will really notice in The Search For Weng Weng is that I’m going into the slums. The camera is capturing the chaos, the craziness of the Manila slum. I take the camera into Imelda Marco’ 83rd birthday party. You’ve gone from one extreme to another. The sights and smells and a real taste as the place, and that’s really important because I love the Philippines as much as I love the movies that come from them.
Was there anything else you wanted to talk about that we haven’t discussed?
Can I just mention the $30,000 Kickstarter campaign target basically covers post-production? If for some bizarre reason we reach our $50,000 stretch goal then we take the show on the road as a live show and we get to as many cities as we possibly can. So if you can imagine, a 90-minute documentary but with a live narration.
That’s Alby Mangels territory.
Yep, this is Dwarf Safari. (He adopts the ocker Alby voice) “What is this gorgeous midget doing with this complete and utter drongo?”