We are so used to on-demand titles, IMDb and such that it’s easy to forget that we didn’t used to have all the answers to hand. Back in the day, when you wanted to find out about an obscure film, it was a quest, you had to work to find out. This was especially true when it came to some of the world cinema oddities that would turn up during the VHS age, especially from the realm of exploitation movies. Even with the rise of the internet culture, there are still films that have steadily gained a “cult” following, but there exists little solid information on. One of these gaps is the subject of this fascinating documentary, a look into one of the most unlikely action stars, and representatives of a nation’s cinema of all time; Weng Weng.
Andrew Leavold, an Australian film fan and video store owner, first discovered Weng Weng from an old VHS copy of For Your Height Only. It was a James Bond spoof, where the diminutive lead played Agent 00, fought the bad guys, rode a jetpack, got the ladies and such, all while under three feet tall. This lead to a fascination with the figure of Weng Weng; who was he? Where did he get trained in that stunt work? What was his real name? So, armed with a simple digital camcorder, Andrew set out to the Philippines to find out. As he soon learned, to know Weng Weng, you have to understand a lot about a film culture not widely known or understood in the West.
Indeed, this documentary starts out about trying to find out more information about Weng Weng, but ends up being a sort of overview of the state of Filipino cinema as a whole. It’s fascinating seeing this whole section of movie making that you’ve probably scarcely even glanced before. Not only does it reveal a lot about the culture and business of it in the region (the revelations about how much the Weng Weng films’ distribution rights sold for are jaw dropping), but how it relates a great deal to the politics of the region. In a turn that even the filmmakers mention is utterly surreal, they end up spending time with Imelda Marcos, as the regime of Ferdinand Marcos strongly supported the arts, probably as an attempt to distract from what else it was up to.
It never loses sight of its titular subject, and along the way, it asks the serious question of whether Weng Weng’s starring role was inspirational (anyone can be a hero), or horribly exploitative. Filipino film fans view him a bit uncomfortably, in a “this is the face of our cinema we’re exporting worldwide” way, but do acknowledge his films were technical achievements. Many of his colleagues and co-stars interviewed also give a conflicting picture, some mentioning how much fun he was to be around, how friendly he could be, but others mentioning that there was a sense of sadness to him. In the end, he is portrayed as that most complex and fascinating of things; a person, and one whose life was anything but boring.
A special mention should go to the DVD; alongside the usual commentary, deleted scenes and the like, part of the package is one of Weng Weng’s films in whole! D’Wild Weng Weng is a mad mash-up of a western-style storyline, with a climax involving a whole pygmy tribe (no, Weng Weng isn’t one of them, they just turn up too), and even a pack of ninjas out of nowhere. It’s only in crude VHS quality, but it seems right somehow to be in that format. As fun as the documentary is with the liberal use of clips from Weng Weng’s films (from For Your Height Only to The Impossible Kid), having a complete one just helps you appreciate all the ground covered more.
This film comes highly recommended for casting light on a much-underrepresented tradition of films. It helps to give one an idea when the world of video distribution was a far stranger affair, full of titles and stars from out of nowhere that had incredible stories behind them. It’s a wild journey presented within; what other documentary features contributors ranging from cameramen to the former First Lady of a country? Whatever one may think about the use of Weng Weng in these films, this tale of his times is a fine tribute to him, and the now seemingly extinct industry he worked in. The inclusion of one of his titles does also mean that next video night with friends, you have the chance to go “hey, want to see something really different?…”.