Every April at the Gutter we mix things up with the editors writing something outside their usual domain. This week SF/F Editor Keith writes about movies.
In the early spring of 2002, a trip out west to meet some friends resulted in a weekend that involved everything from drinking in Juarez to being hired to do design work for a network of Texas dominatrixes to hanging out with ukulele-playing cowpunk ladies from Tokyo and, finally, ended with a bizarre and hazily remembered quest to find the locations used in Manos: The Hands of Fate with the only guideposts being that they were “somewhere around El Paso.” Over the years, subsequent globe-trotting adventures have been inspired by my love of film and literature: tracking The Maltese Falcon across San Francisco, following in the footsteps of James Bond through New Orleans and Venice and London, or seeking out popular buildings destroyed by monsters in Tokyo. And yet, these obsessions with film and books and oddball trivia, especially when I was younger, were often met with the taunt that I should “get a life.”
Even then, as now, I knew this was a meaningless remark. Far from being indulged to the exclusion of “having a life,” my passion for film, for old books, strange music, and for esoteric history were instrumental in me having not just a life, but a very fun life. They (and my interest in booze) have served a the impetus for trips that have taken me to every continent, introduced me to people and places and concepts I never would have experienced if I hadn’t fostered an interest in movies and books and let them make me say things like, “Hey, do you want to get a drink where Maurizio Merli busted a bottle of J&B over a bank robber’s head?” Film doesn’t discourage a life well lived; it inspires it.
Watching The Search for Weng Weng (in the living room of Todd Stadtman, author of Funky Bollywood, which had itself just inspired a fun adventure to San Francisco), the story the documentary was telling — about the life of Weng Weng, star of the Filipino movie For Y’ur Height Only — took a back seat (in my head) in a way to the story surrounding the documentary: that of a film fan whose love of a strange, obscure movie led him on a multi-national odyssey that started with the simple question “I wonder what Weng Weng’s story is” and ended with a private tour of the Philippines with its infamous deposed first lady, Imelda Marcos. Far from his passion for movies resulting in a sedentary life, this film fan’s film fandom took him on a trip the likes of which few will ever experience. It is an adventure that not only makes a great film; but also would never have happened without film.
Said film fan is Andrew Leavold, an Australian who used to run a store called Trash Video and who, like many, stumbled across Weng Weng and For Y’ur Height Only in the 1990s (incidentally, a recent look at my Amazon purchasing history showed that the first thing I ever bought from Amazon was For Y’ur Height Only on VHS, in 1999, to replace my bootleg). For those unfamiliar with the movie and its star, Weng Weng is the Guinness Book of World Record holder for shortest leading man in a movie. Standing about 2’9”, he makes a curious centerpiece for a couple of cheap James Bond spoofs, For Y’ur Height Only and The Impossible Kid, both of which bank on their star’s small stature for an endless series of gags. Past the initial spectacle of such a little guy in the role of an ace secret agent, however, was the fact that Weng Weng was a fantastic stuntman and pretty decent martial artist. If he needed to jump off of a building or out of a moving car, he just did it. Because, honestly, where would you find a stunt double?
Digging past the novelty, and the scant few “facts” that circulated about his career, Leavold launched a multi-decade “search for Weng Weng.” After discovering that most of the info about Weng was vague (at best) or complete fabrication (his career in erotic movies…), Leavold decided a documentary needed to be made. And there was really no way to do it other than going to The Philippines. So he and a small crew loaded up and began the search with almost nothing to go on, hoping the picture might solidify a little once they reached their destination. What happened once they were on the ground was impossible to predict, and its exactly why you should never, ever listen to anyone who condescends to your hobby or passion. Starting at the logical place — film archives — it seems at first like Andrew has come a very long way for very little information. Most people remember Weng Weng, but no one knows anything about him other than he was considered sort of an embarrassing export. But as the crew wanders, at times almost aimlessly, a scrap of info here slowly leads to a larger scrap there, until all of a sudden Andrew and his crew are sitting in the home of Weng Weng’s brother or, even more fantastically, at the food court where the superstars of a bygone era meet every day to eat, smoke, and talk about the old times. Suddenly, we’re having lunch with Bobby Suarez, with Franco “The One-Armed Executioner” Guerrero, and the search for Weng Weng begins to yield results that are thrilling, amusing, and heart-breaking.
At no point does Andrew Leavold put his own story front and center. He mentions it, but this isn’t a director who thinks he is more interesting than his subject matter. The fact that the story behind the documentary is as interesting as the story in the documentary just happens organically. When a film historian casually mentions that he has Imelda Marcos’ phone number during an interview, and when Leavold (dressed like he just came from work at the video store) ends up at the VIP table for her surreal birthday celebration, you can’t imagine what happens next (and certainly wouldn’t guess “piling into Imelda’s bullet-proof tour van to listen to her mystical theories as she takes everyone to see her husband’s mummy”). Weaving through it all is the story of Filipino cinema in general and Weng Weng in particular, a man whose unique height brought him to the attention of a couple shady film producers whose trashy action films happened to coincide with the Imelda Marcos’ planning the first Filipino Film Festival (the Marcos’ role in Filipino politics is also explored, from their horrible military dictatorship to their benevolent funding of the arts — it’s complicated), and well…all of a sudden everyone takes note not of the serious dramas and art films, but of the little guy in a white leisure suit ziplining off the top of a Ferris wheel and cutting his way through wave after wave of goons.
Until the producers had a falling out with one another and lost interest in Weng Weng, fleecing him out of every penny he earned and turning him out onto the streets.
The scenes in which the old stars, directors, and stuntmen of 1970s and ‘80s Filipino action cinema hang out and swap stories is great, as are their stories about working with Weng. All of them acknowledge his slight stature (“He wasn’t a midget. He wasn’t a dwarf. He was just this miniature guy”), but beyond that, they talk about him as one of them — an actor and a stuntman, with the same sort of back-slapping old-timer tales spun about him. And yet, they acknowledge that his size, his mental state, and the way he was “kept” by his producers prevented him from ever feeling as much “one of the guys” as they might have considered him. Upon hearing how Weng was conned by producers, Franco Guerrero becomes earnestly and intensely angry, reflecting on Weng’s emotional alienation and how he did not deserve to be treated so poorly. The producers themselves remain elusive for the documentary, but Leavold through one encounter leading to another, meets a long list of former stars, directors, historians, editors, and fans, unearthing presumed-lost Weng Weng films from before For Y’ur Height Only and discovering, at last, the remarkable reality behind “Agent 00.”
Weng’s brother provides the story of Weng’s early life and the end of his life, finally taking Andrew to the grave where Weng Weng — Ernesto, by birth — rests, in a cemetery in which people actually live and hustle amongst the tombstones. But still, we are reminded of the life he led, if only briefly. And we are reminded that his work in film ended up being about more than just, “Hey a little guy in a James Bond spoof!” That can get you by once, but after a while you realize you’re being a dick. But you keep watching the movie, not because Weng Weng is novel, but because he’s interesting, and because the movies are fun, and because the dude puts everything into his films.
The Search for Weng Weng is, obviously, infused by a melancholy undercurrent, and its a hard heart that isn’t moved when Weng’s loneliness and deteriorating health are discussed. But there are moments of great joy as well. There were ups in Weng’s life, after all, and for a brief moment, he was the international face of Filipino cinema, regardless of what The Philippines hoped. He hobnobbed with the A-List. He went to Cannes. He made movies that made people happy. The Search for Weng Weng keeps humanity front and center, turning Weng Weng from the novel centerpiece of VHS tapes we traded in the 1990s to a guy. Not a regular guy who lived a regular life, but a guy we feel like, finally, we know better. Not regular, but real. Like Leavold, like me, film took Weng on an incredible adventure he never would have had without it.