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Interview: Andrew Leavold and The Search for Weng Weng

What’s the strangest or wildest thing obsession has ever made you do? Send an instantly-regretted, embarrassing, melancholic drunken email to an ex from years ago? Made you follow a band or film or telly series religiously, making you want to kill anybody who disagreed that you have the best entertainment taste ever? Made you travel thousands of miles to find a deceased 2’9” Filipino James Bond impersonator?

Well, probably not the latter, because that’s the exclusive small game preserve of Australian director Andrew Leavold. The energetic, charismatic Antipodean anarchist became obsessed with the aforementioned diminutive Southeast Asian star Weng Weng (real name Ernesto dela Cruz) when he owned a cult video shop in Brisbane, Trash Video. When asked what was the strangest film he had in stock, Leavold would unerringly point the bemused, culture-schlocked customer in the direction of obscure 1981 Filipino spy-comedy-crime-drama For Y’ur Height Only. In it, the aforementioned shortarse action star cock-kicks and maiden-beds and gadget-storms his way through a bevy of brutes and beauties in a twisted satire on Ian Fleming’s famous phlegmatic secret service agent.

Even after Trash Video closed, Leavold was still obsessed with Weng Weng, and spent seven years sifting through his rumour-shrouded legacy until, eventually, he found out the details behind the decades-deceased wee man’s life and death, opening up a never-closed Pandora’s box of information about cult and forgotten Filipino cinema as he did so. This unholy grail trail was documented on film over seven years and finally released in 2014 as The Search For Weng Weng, Leavold’s peerless, fearless, batshit-bananas travelogue of his ascent into his art of dorkness, recording his growing trepidation as he travels up the faded celluloid river of zero-coincidence and happenstance and clearly-meantness to meet his own chimerical Kurtz, though thankfully no cows or dwarfs were harmed during the making of this production.

If you haven’t seen The Search For Weng Weng, I would urge you to do so. It’s an utterly incredible film from start to finish. Seeing an Australian obsessive travel to the Philippines on a seemingly quixotic, windmill-tilting quest to find a long-dead dwarf action star, and end up finding his lifelong Filipino cinema-archaeological metier…is quite literally unbelievable. When you see Leavold and his crew meeting and being wooed by Imelda Marcos, to the point where they are shown her 1989-embalmed husband Ferdinand, you’ll be shaking your head in, frankly, total disbelief, as the director himself often seems to be doing. It’s an amazing, unprecedented trip, and one well worth taking, meaning you don’t have the pay the airfares or the mental and emotional tolls of obsession to see how a lifelong cinematic career can, quite simply, be willed into being.

The film is the jumping-off point for Andrew Leavold’s new book, also called The Search For Weng Weng. A perfect companion piece to the film, it parallels and vastly expands upon the material in its celluloid counterpart. The writer-director-researcher-cinematic-archaeologist-spy-dwarf-action-hero-obsessive presents us with reams of new information he couldn’t fit into his film, a wealth of fascinating information about undiscovered and undiscussed Flilipino films, actors, stuntmen, directors, and a whole heaping helping of other stuff and nonsense. Plus we also get the fascinating lowdown on the Marcos family and their artistic patronage. It’s completely unprecedented, and fans of esoteric exploitation cinema, Southeast Asian dictators, and lovelorn deceased dwarfs (and let’s face it, who isn’t?) won’t want to miss it.

But can manic renaissance man Leavold write? Well, absolutely. He dives right into his subject matter and does a fine job of conveying the sights and sounds and smells of this thriller in Manila, inspiring laughs and headshakes in vivid, poetic prose along the way. Take, for example, this beautiful description of the mad and dangerous driving conditions in Makati:

‘Apart from the embassy district in Makati there are no discernible lines on any streets, just an endless serpentine triple helix of vehicles and a cacophony of horns, each with their unique pitch and signature series of honks. The roadsides at times resemble a South American republic – massive painted portraits of politicians, ragged palm trees, neon-lit born again churches, and the omnipresent skeletal remains of long-abandoned billboards.’

So this wild gonzo fistful of traveller’s tales has it all: poetry, foxy boxing maidens, arthouse, grindhouse, mendacious dwarf impersonators, abusive godparents, double crosses, suitcases full of money being handed over in clandestine hotel room rendezvous, blood, sweat, beers, teeth-grinding frustrations, ecstatic breakthroughs, famous Hollywood directors (Roger Corman, John Landis, Jonathan Demme) utilising the best and craziest stuntmen in the world, horrific poverty, and the final, fully deserved, unearthly unearthing of a dimmed-star Filipino cinematic legend.

When Ernesto dela Cruz was born, he was tiny, and not expected to live. His parents kept his frail newborn form in a shoebox under a lightbulb for six months, orally feeding him medicine drops. Leavold has done pretty much the same thing for his subject’s nearly-dead reputation: fed it cinematic attention medicine drops, revived it, and in the process found himself a lifelong artistic playing field in the musty, dusty, unlit corners of quirky old Filipino kino. No telling what he’ll discover next.

Unless, of course, you attend the tour he is doing right now for the book, where you can ask him yourself. He hits the UK for six dates from the 3rd of August until the 11th, and then is off to mainland Europe and the USA and Canada for many more show-and-tells, screening subtitled segments from three Weng Weng films never before seen outside the Philippines. So get yourself along for an excellent night of eccentric entertainment. Until then, though, I sent Andrew some questions, which he was gracious enough to answer in between jetting round screenings in Europe. So without further ado…

Diabolique: So how’s the tour going?

Andrew: It’s already been a wild ride – Australia and New Zealand were a blast, and I just left Spain after the first European book launch at an incredible boutique-sized Asian themed film festival an hour north of Barcelona (Spanish B film fans are amongst the most rabidly passionate I’ve ever encountered). Right now I’m in rural France slowly making my way by train and bus to Copenhagen to reunite with my Danish buddies from the 2014 tour. UK is straight after with six dates over eight days…there will be spirals in the eyes before Europe’s finished with me!

Diabolique: How long did the book take to write, why did you write it, and how did you learn to write?

Andrew: The book  was written in chunks over 11 years. The first chunk started as a diary of my first Manila visit in late 2006 and appeared on the French website Nanarland soon after. It then became the basis for the documentary’s shooting script, then as a repository for all remaining things Weng-related, THEN a wider history of Filipino B films, a record of the crazy behind-the-camera stories, and by the finish a nerd’s confessional of self-actualisation! Plus the whole time I agonised over structure and content. So eleven years in total, in order to have the final say on the entire affair (as 90 minutes of film is never enough for one megalomaniac). As for learning to write – like most thinks I kinda wing it as I go along. Sometimes I make a total jackass of myself, sometimes things work out.

Diabolique: Are you surprised at Weng Weng’s continuing and growing popularity? See any end to it?

Andrew: Over a million hits on the Chuds’ Weng Rap (by the Canadian rappers on Youtube – Graham) can’t all be coincidence! A great deal are solely for the WTF factor, but I’m sure there are enough hits from people like me who immediately fall in love with the little guy. Personally I don’t think interest in Weng Weng will ever fade away; Weng is not like a typical pop culture fad, and it can only grow as more folk stumble upon his idiosyncratic charms.

Diabolique: What’s your own favourite Weng Weng film, and why?

Andrew: Easy – my first, and most fans’ initial, Weng Weng moment, For Y’ur Height Only…It doesn’t get better than the eyepopping stunts, a terrified-looking Weng with a jetpack paddling his legs to make it go faster, the surreal and self-aware dubbing and seemingly made-up dialogue (“This is your pen…it won’t write words, but you can’t have everything.”), the girls from Dolphy’s Angels, the villains and their armies of goons all wearing the same six red berets, the nudie cuties through his x-ray specs, the fight between 2’9″ Weng and three foot Mr Giant, and the overwrought ending (“Irmaaaaaaaaa!”). Beautiful, absurd, joyful, blissfully ludicrous stuff!

Diabolique: You only refer to Imelda Marcos as a ‘patron of the arts’ in the book, when she has a pretty serious political rep, putting it mildly. Why is this?

Andrew: I also described her and husband Ferdinand as Emperor and Empress, and it’s true, they are the closest the Philippines ever came to experiencing a royal family, though more in the style of ancient Rome or the medieval Borgias. And so the images of Imelda as a lover of the arts AND a ruthless conjugal dictator are equally valid. I’m certainly no Marcos revisionist but I do believe in giving credit where it’s due, and almost everyone in the Philippines would agree, whether violently pro-or-anti-Marcos, that the arts would not be anywhere as developed if it weren’t for the concerted efforts of Imelda and Ferdinand. Their reasons for doing so, of course, are another book or film altogether.

Diabolique: Is there any part of your whole wild adventure that you yourself can hardly believe?

Andrew: Most of it, to be honest! Screening the finished film outside the house where Ernesto entered and left this world – that was bizarre. Being told by his neighbour that Ernesto had healed him – THAT was strange. But I think early on, standing next to Ernesto’s grave and placing my hand on the concrete tomb, knowing I’d achieved what I’d previously thought impossible, and with my heart bursting with sadness and compassion for this fragile little human being – that was a life-changing moment I could never forget.

Diabolique: Any interesting positive or negative reactions to the book and/or film?

Andrew: Mostly positive, I’m happy to report. The majority of Weng fans have embraced it, and even people new to cult cinema can connect with Weng Weng’s story. Negative comments usually point to the technical flaws, the occasionally rough picture and sound and poor quality of some archival materials, and I agree, it’s ragged in parts. One Australian critic savaged me however and not only disliked me as a filmmaker and person, but also cast doubts on my integrity. That cut deep.

Diabolique: Ever had anybody thinking that this area of cinema should be covered by a Filipino, or are they just happy to have their story told?

Andrew: Filipino academics and researchers were either completely unaware of their B film past or chose to ignore it, or maybe a combination of both. I started giving lectures to university students in 2008 and you could sense a discomfort; it’s taken all this time to feel like I’m being taken seriously. Nick Deocampo, the  film historian I interviewed in The Search For Weng Weng, has to date written three volumes on Philippine cinema, and tells me constantly how much he’s relieved I’m covering the B films – “I will defer to your research!” I’m more than happy to get my boots muddy in the B film trenches, and he’s happy for my book to sit on the shelf next to his, so to be in such esteemed company makes me incredibly proud.

Diabolique: How was The Search For Weng Weng received in the Philippines?

Andrew: I have witnessed it first hand in the Philippines – overwhelming pride and joy. Old timers – people my age! – remember him as a distant memory from their childhoods, so for them the blanks in Weng’s narrative have been finally filled in. For the college age kids and younger they’ve discovered a bona fide pop culture hero, someone who took on Hollywood at their own game and won – when the Tony Maharaj, West Indies distributor of For Y’ur Height Only, says he outgrossed Raiders of the Lost Ark, the cheer from the local audience is deafening! And the moment a long-haired Aussie bum asks Imelda about a long-dead midget – for them, pure subversion.

Diabolique: Is this the first time the three Weng Weng films you are showing excerpts from have been seen outside the Philippines?

Andrew: I believe so, and definitely the first time with subtitles. The two films starring the Philippines’ all-time King of Comedy pop up occasionally on local TV: the gay disco kung fu Stariray (1981) and western parody Da Best In Da West (1981), which I think is a riot. Weng Weng is a second-stringer only, a kung fu kicking Police Controller is the first, and Dolphy’s tiny Deputy Bronson in the second, but I’ve included every scene in which Weng Weng appears. The third is Legs…Katawan…Babae! (“Legs…Body…Girl!”; 1981) and was a monumental find – a disco biker kung fu spy western comedy musical starring Hagibis, the Philippines’ own Village People (but a strictly hetero version in leather and denim!) who are deputized by the OTHER James Bond of the Philippines’ Tony Falcon Agent X44 – Weng Weng’s boss in For Y’ur Height Only, here also the film’s producer and director – to join the fight against drug smuggler Mike Cohen (the Professor in For Y’ur Height Only). The print is from a Umatic tape rescued from a demolished TV station, and I suspect has been unseen since the Eighties. Weng Weng makes a cameo at the very end and joins Hagibis on stage for a final disco line dancing number. What you get are three films compressed down to a manic and VERY entertaining 95 minutes!

Diabolique: How did you choose what films to show?

Andrew: Those three “lost” films are, to the best of my knowledge, the only Tagalog language copies in existence. The TV station’s copy of Weng’s third film with Dolphy, The Quick Brown Fox (1980) is currently beyond repair, and the rest – seven films out of a total of 14 – are missing and presumed truly lost forever. Which speaks volumes about the state of film preservation and cultural genocide in the Philippines.

Diabolique: Are you at all religious? Because this whole story seems like nothing so much as a religious quest, as you acknowledge in your book.

Andrew: Nah, I’m more your old fashioned mystic, and that’s from experiencing all forms of weirdness and inexplicable phenomena first hand. Rather than attributing this strange shit and serendipity to God or gods, I tend to acknowledge the influence of an invisible world on ours and leave it as mysterious and unknowable. I definitely think there’s magic in the Quest. What exactly and why remains a massive question mark and I’m OK with that.

Diabolique: Did you do all the research for the film and book yourself, or did you have help?

Andrew: The writing and grunt work is all mine, but my network inside and outside the Philippines has been crucial. My translators Roy and Nina have watched over 1000 hours of Tagalog films with me; then there are the folk who find the interviewees for me, my cast and crew, all the blogs and academics I quote, and my publisher Simon String who designed the book from scratch. Sounds like an acceptance speech!!

Diabolique: Why do Germans seem to love Weng Weng?

Andrew: Hahaha I have no idea. You’d have to ask a German. They are some of the funniest people I know. They might not agree however….

Diabolique: In the book, you talk of Weng ‘impostors’ that made people think he was still alive after his death. Any truth to these stories? Did you ever try to track any of these impostors down, if there is any truth to them?

Andrew: Ernesto’s brother told me the story. I’d love to know for sure, but the TV station’s archives went up in flames when government tanks smashed through its walls during the 1986 EDSA Revolution, taking with it all of Weng Weng’ s interviews and variety show appearances, and a startling percentage of the Philippines’ now-lost cinema.

Diabolique: What do you think Weng would have made of your film and book?

Andrew: I’ll bet he’s spinning around doing cartwheels with his jetpack wherever he is! I like to think the documentary gave back his real name along with the humanity and dignity to his narrative, and has preserved his legacy for future generations of the dela Cruz clan. That’s got to put a mischievous smile on his face.

Diabolique: In the book, Weng’s costars Nelson Anderson and Yehlen Catral describe a very different diminutive action star than others interviewed about him. General consensus seems to be that Weng was a bit slow, but their accounts present a much more nuanced, three-dimensional human being, with a love of Italian neo-realist cinema and such. Why do you think this discord exists?

Andrew: I know, I was shocked! What a series of revelations. My only guess is that Ernesto was so painfully polite that he allowed people so see whatever they projected onto him. His brother Celing was more than ten years older than him and had left home by the time Ernesto was of school age, so I’m sure his memories are of an impossibly shy child with little to say. But Yehlen and Nelson both insist he was clever, well-read, insightful, and when allowed to voice his opinions, articulate and forthright.

Diabolique: Any other Weng-related plans in the pipeline?

Andrew: No, I think the book at Lost Films of Weng Weng are it. Unless I unearth some earth-shattering revelation that screams Second Edition or even a Search… Redux. Then again I’m no Coppola and I suspect the world will be content with the story as is. What I can’t stop doing is returning to the Philippines. The first few trips were all about Weng Weng – right now I’m researching the next four books and co-directing the third, after The Last Pinoy Action King (2015), in our Guns Goons and Gold trilogy, called The Most Beautiful Creatures on the Skin of the Earth, on erotic cinema during the Marcos years. Those stories are really going to mess with your head – politics, the propaganda of porn, and exploitation in film and in real life. Those actresses we interview are such strong survivors who made it through a kind of Hell, and their tales will tear your heart out.

Diabolique: What’s the secret of Weng’s enduring appeal?

Andrew: There’s something mysterious and enigmatic about Ernesto, and the fact that everyone has a radically different take on him is testament to that. I mean, you can’t make this stuff up: real-life secret agent, stunt king, living saint, plaything of the Marcoses… I once wrote that in Weng Weng’ s case, reality kicks fiction in the nuts then runs between its legs, and I still stand by that.

Coming soon to a cinema near you! Check below for world tour dates:

www.kickstarter.com/projects/210613803/the-search-for-weng-weng-1/posts/1931953

About Graham Rae

Graham Rae has been writing about weird and wonderfueled cinematic oddities for nearly 30 years. He started off writing for the legendary Deep Red, and since then has been bounced around like a human pinball around such venues as Film Threat, American Cinematographer, Cinefantastique, and Realitystudio.org.. A selection of his genre writings are available at www.facebook.com/raewrites, and he runs a Mad Foxes page on Facebook too. You have been warned.

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