OTTAWA PREMIERE | STARTS DECEMBER 19
During the burgeoning video boom of the early eighties, thousands of cinematic oddities from around the globe packed the shelves. One such film that stuck in the psyche of many viewers, probably for all the wrong reasons, was the 1981 Filipino James Bond rip-off, For Y’ur Height Only. The key marketing point: the hero was a fearless, kung fu fighting, two-foot-nine actor named Weng Weng. Already a superstar in the Philippines, the diminutive performer would become a cult favourite for many for years to come. However, there was virtually no information about the man himself and several of his other films never saw a release anywhere else and are presently lost.
Fast forward several decades and Australian cult video store owner Andrew Leavold took his love of bizarre cinema, and in particular the output of the Philippines, to the extreme and set out on a quest to try and find out as much as he could about the little man. What was his real name? What was his back-story? What happened to him, and importantly, was he still alive?
The result of seven years of hard work, The Search for Weng Weng goes beyond the original remit of finding out about the star, as Leavold uncovers, via many of the major players in the scene at the time, the truth behind the tiniest king of exploitation movies. The interviews are startling; everyone speaks with great fondness about Weng Weng, and by tracking down his only surviving relative, we find out about what life was really like for the tiny star. Despite his size, he was not a dwarf but he did have a retarded mental age. He was practically owned by husband and wife team, Peter and Cora Caballes (the former produced, the latter wrote the films) who claimed they had adopted him. Leavold finds out that he died penniless when they decided to leave the film industry. Neither of them agreed to an interview, and that alone speaks volumes about their integrity and motives.
An astonishing moment comes as former First Lady Imelda Marcos, who planned the 1981 Manila International Film Festival as a showcase for the country’s talent – only the Bond spoof was picked up for distribution in other territories, agrees to see Leavold. They attend her birthday celebrations before giving an interview, and taking the small filmmaking team on a tour of her palatial home, stopping at the glass-entombed body of her late husband, Ferdinand. She recalls Weng Weng with great clarity and her daughter, Imee, provides some fascinating insight into the Filipino culture.
The Search for Weng Weng not only executes its task admirably, it exceeds by becoming a compelling, thought provoking, and ultimately touching look at the cultural traditions of a country not widely recognised for its cinema. Told with great humour, but never degrading nor mocking (don’t expect any sardonic Eurotrash-like readings here, although the film clips are naturally hilarious, mainly due to the dubbing and ludicrous situations) it succeeds in shedding light on its subject and treating Weng Weng with respect and great compassion. Had he lived, he would no doubt be a massive star worldwide on the convention circuit that makes his story all the more tragic.