In any knowledgeable discussion of Philippine movies—at least among non-native cineastes—two films inevitably come up.
The first, of course, is “Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag” (1975), Lino Brocka’s tropical noir classic, thus far the only Filipino film to rate mention in the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” movie guide.
The second is the worldwide cult favorite “For Y’ur Height Only” (1981), a secret agent spoof distinguished mostly by the fact that it starred creepy karate-chopping, jet-pack flying, two-foot-nine midget Weng Weng as Agent 00.
To be sure, the two films represent polar extremes in Philippine cinema.
Influenced in equal parts by European art film and the Asian social realism of Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa, “Maynila” exemplifies a strain of serious auteur cinema that demands that movies do more than entertain—they must illuminate social ills for the edification of the viewer.
In contrast, “For Y’ur Height Only” is pure exploitation, with a cheap gimmick (a midget James Bond) at its core, a bad pun for a title, and laughably low production values, ground out for a fast buck by an outfit (Liliw Productions) that epitomized fly-by-night filmmaking, with an ex-S.O.S. Daredevil at the helm, no less.
But while the former remains highly-regarded among chin-stroking film academics (and deservedly so), the latter has inspired the kind of hyperventilating fanaticism among cult film aficionados that Brocka in his grave can probably only envy.
At its center is an unlikely hero.
Born Ernesto de la Cruz in 1957, the man who would be Weng Weng suffered from a medical condition called primordial dwarfism. A mutant gene stunted his growth from birth. His parents had another explanation: He had been conceived in the image of the Sto. Niño, to whom his mother had been unusually devoted during her pregnancy. The size of a Pepsi bottle as an infant, he would eventually reach two feet and nine inches at full maturity (a fact which would later land him in the Guinness Book of World Records as the shortest adult lead actor).
Weng Weng seemed destined for the life of a freak. Indeed, his neighbors in Baclaran would dress him up as the Sto. Niño for the patron’s yearly fiesta.
His affliction proved to be his ticket to show business, however. He appeared in a couple of Dolphy movies as a comic sidekick before being discovered by Pete and Cora Caballes, who ran a mom-and-pop movie outfit and cast him in his first starring role as Agent 00 in “For Y’ur Height Only.”
It was Pete Caballes who gave him his screen name, after a notoriously potent cocktail incorporating several kinds of liquor. (“Weng-weng” is, in fact, Tagalog slang for “totally wasted.”) Rumors about the diminutive star’s hard-drinking ways inevitably followed, although it is not clear which came first: the name, or the reputation.
In any case, the world, it seems, had been waiting for a midget James Bond all along. The film found international distribution in an English-dubbed version, and was soon a surprise global hit from Iceland to Papua New Guinea, even outgrossing “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” in some Third World markets.
Like so many of his ilk in the netherworld of Filipino B movies, Weng Weng’s star rose quickly and plummeted just as abruptly. By the late 1980s, his movie career had evaporated. He died young, alone, broke and virtually forgotten in the same ramshackle Baclaran home that he grew up in.
But thanks to the unstinting efforts of Australian cinephile, guerrilla filmmaker and No. 1 Weng Weng fan Andrew Leavold, Agent 00 lives again on the silver screen.
Last November, a select group gathered at the UP Film Center for the world premiere of “The Search For Weng Weng,” Leavold’s full-length documentary about his epic quest to bring to light the untold story of the diminutive movie star.
It was the culmination of seven years of painstaking work that found Leavold running around Metro Manila sifting through tantalizing clues, interviewing celebrities and non-entities alike, digging through moldy film archives, piecing together the flimsy strands of Weng Weng’s short and sad life.
Eventually, Leavold had a hundred hours of footage, which included priceless interviews with Dolphy and other film veterans, documentation of a surreal trip to Ilocos Norte to interview former First Lady Imelda Marcos, and, crucially, interviews with Celing de la Cruz, Weng Weng’s brother and only surviving kin.
An online campaign on Kickstarter.com quickly raised the $30,000 post-production budget: Clearly, there was a lot of anticipation for “The Search for Weng Weng.”
Aside from reintroducing contemporary audiences to a forgotten icon, the film sheds light on the world of Filipino B movies, a hidden realm of Philippine popular culture that has never been given its due.
“This is a film about an underdog, and I associate myself with underdog characters,” says Leavold, who is currently taking his little film about a little actor on the film festival circuit, where it will hopefully generate more momentum and more interest in now largely-forgotten Filipino movies.
“The Search for Weng Weng” is also a cautionary tale: Toward the end of the film, we are brought to a nondescript tomb in a Pasay City cemetery, Weng Weng’s final resting place.
At the height of his fame, Weng Weng was even brought to Malacañang to meet then First Lady Imelda Marcos. (She and daughter Imee offer their recollections of Weng Weng in the film.) When the movie offers stopped coming, Weng Weng simply fell back into obscurity. He was only 34 when he died in 1992 following a series of strokes. The producers of “For Y’ur Height Only” had to pay for his coffin.
It is a familiar story, often repeated.
“Look at Palito, look at Roberto Gonzales, two people I knew, whose downfall and quick demise I had witnessed,” says Leavold.
“We tend to canonize the well-known names and stars, the Dolphys and Nora Aunors, but the little guys, the Weng Wengs and Redford Whites and Palitos are the ones people enjoy watching. But we never give them a second thought. And so when they do fall into a downward spiral, they’re already forgotten.”
The film is an attempt to give these forgotten players their due.
“Part of ‘The Search for Weng Weng’ is almost a gentle reminder: Don’t forget about the little guys. That’s why I loved [B movie producer] Bobby A. Suarez, who’s pretty much a pariah among Filipino film academics, and [‘Height’ director] Eddie Nicart, again absolutely forgotten. It’s a reminder: These guys did significant work. Even if it didn’t fall into the framework of contemporary film criticism, it still falls into my parameters of being pretty neat.”
What Leavold considers “pretty neat” should of course be viewed through the filter of a peculiar film sensibility that he calls “smart pulp,” a decidedly post-modern film aesthetic that relishes the unintentional art that can be found in genre films, B movies, exploitation cinema, and the cultural collisions that occur when, for instance, Italians make cowboy movies, Americans make ninja movies, and Filipinos make secret agent movies.
“I interviewed [filmmaker] Cirio Santiago shortly before he passed away,” Leavold recalls. “He said, ‘why would you be interested in my films, they’re rubbish.’ I said, ‘they’re great rubbish!’”
There has always been a significant subculture devoted to grindhouse cinema. Lately, the movement has even made inroads into the mainstream, with A-list directors such as Quentin Tarantino (“Kill Bill”) and Robert Rodriguez (“Machete”) paying explicit homage to their favorite B movies.
Leavold’s penchant for “great rubbish” dates back to the days when he ran Trash Video in Brisbane.
“It was a specialist shop dedicated to old forgotten classics, psychotronic cinema, silent films, Australiana, anything that was off the beaten track.”
It was through his shop that Leavold discovered “For Y’ur Height Only.”
It was, to say the least, a life-changing moment.
“The film itself is so absurd, a party favorite. You can sit there with a group of 5 to 10 people, a couple of six-packs and a bowl of popcorn and have the best night of your life watching ‘For Y’ur Height Only,’” he recalls.
What began as a laugh soon turned into a full-blown obsession, not just with Weng Weng, but with the entire milieu from which he sprang, fully ungrown, as it were. Where Weng Weng came from, there had to be more, he surmised. He soon discovered the other movies in Weng Weng’s filmography, including “D’ Wild Wild Weng” and “The Impossible Kid,” the inevitable sequel to “For Y’ur Height Only.” (Weng Weng made as many as 11 movies, half of which may have been lost.)
From there it was just a short leap to the wild, wild world of Pinoy exploitation films from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Leavold started spreading the word about this heretofore unexplored realm through his blog “The Search For Weng Weng” (http://andrewleavold.blogspot.com).
“I’m the type of person who loves to dig and see what little mutant mushrooms we can dig up,” says Leavold.
“I’ve since watched thousands of Filipino films, and I can tell you that I would struggle now to make a list of less than a hundred films which I adore and try to tell people about, any chance I get. It’s gone from an interest to an obsession to a life-changing tidal wave, almost. The research that I had started in my ‘Search for Weng Weng’ led me to so many different parts of Philippine cinema history that I can now tell you I love Danny Zialcita films, I love Eddie Romero’s ‘The Passionate Strangers’ as one of his finest films, and ‘Aguila’ of course, with FPJ. FPJ westerns I’m obsessed with at the moment: I’ve seen about 20. Let’s keep going—Joey de Leon, Rene Requiestas, Redford White, Palito…”
Leavold’s obsession with the forgotten byways of Philippine cinema spawned another blog, “Bamboo Gods and Bionic Boys” (http://bamboogodsandbionicboys.blogspot.com), in which he explores not just homegrown obscurities but also foreign productions shot in the Philippines, often with Filipino actors and crews. (For the longest time, the Philippines was the favored location for making a movie on the cheap.)
“A lot of these are B films of course, but I love the A films as well,” Leavold continues. “I don’t see a stark contrast between the A and B films; there’s a lot of gray in between. Every country has its pulp culture and there are some very interesting examples of A directors working within the pulp genre. Some of my favorite examples of that would be Eddie Romero’s ‘Blood Island’ films or Gerry de Leon’s ‘Lilet,’ on the surface an incest-ridden Freudian psychological horror film, but an incredibly dense film.”
Aspiring to international status, many contemporary Filipino filmmakers would rather forget that such a world ever existed. When they’re not creating updated poverty porn a la Brocka and Bernal or formal art experiments, today’s “indie” filmmakers seem to prefer catering to more middlebrow tastes, with Korean-inspired rom-coms and Guy Ritchie caper film rip-offs.
“If you have a short list that begins with Lino Brocka and ends with Brillante Mendoza, that’s a very limited sliver of Philippine cinema that you’re going to be exploring,” says Leavold. “It’s usually going to be considered art or experimental, and anything that doesn’t fall within that narrow paradigm tends to be pushed to the side or is dropped off everyone’s radar.”
The milieu that allowed “For Y’ur Height Only” to come into being is also now long gone: With dwindling theater attendance, the fly-by-night producers that ground out exploitation quickies have moved on to less risky ventures. The mass market—the so-called “bakya” crowd—that kept Filipino films afloat during their heyday is now pretty much captive to television with its endless telenovelas and variety shows.
As if to underscore that fact, many of the people Leavold interviewed for the film, including Dolphy, Cirio Santiago and Bobby Suarez, have since gone on to join Weng Weng in that big production lot in the sky.
Production resources are now largely concentrated in media conglomerates, for whom movies are simply vehicles for their stable of talents, farmed like tilapia in network TV shows.
There seems to be no room in today’s show business for a freaky little guy like Weng Weng.
“Forty-plus years ago, the term ‘indie’ expressed a film company’s position in the studio pecking order; it was one of pure economics. Back then a smaller company may have resorted to exploitative elements (sex, violence, anti-social themes) to sell their film, but then so did the bigger companies; film was star- and genre-driven, not auteur-centric, and if a film happened to be ‘artistic,’ it was nevertheless a commercial release for a mass audience, like all films released in cinemas (whether an audience attended or not was another issue),” notes Leavold.
“The art-versus-commerce schism happened only recently, and has created an us-versus-them mentality which I find unsettlingly elitist and borderline offensive. I mean, many of the indie kids are being funded by the major conglomerates,” he adds. “Still, I think all films have a right to exist alongside each other, as I believe in cinemas, plural, and in diverse audiences who have different expectations from film—the mainstream, the artistic, experimental, the genre stuff. I love the very punk, DIY attitude of guys like Lav Diaz and Khavn de la Cruz, and I can also see in today’s indie circles a return of the pulpier of genres—gore, gun action, sexploitation—alongside the artier, higher-brow dramas. For me that’s a positive sign. Less teen rom-coms and screeching caricatures and more ‘On The Job’s and ‘The Road’s, please!”
Continues the Australian filmmaker: “The last thing I want to do is appear to be lecturing everyone on what they should or shouldn’t be watching,” he adds. “What I’m saying is, all of the forgotten stuff, the stuff that was never considered important enough to discuss, let’s shine a light on them and let’s try and rephrase the discussion.” •