The Search for Weng Weng had one of the most intriguing premises for any documentary at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival: the search for the real story of Weng Weng, the diminutive star of For Y’ur Height Only, The Impossible Kid and other Filipino genre films from the 80s, brief international icon and at 2’9’’, the Guinness World Record holder for shortest lead in a film ever, about whom very little information exists. What I apprehended was the film going no further than ironic fascination at the absurdity and camp value of the films, but my fears were quickly assuaged – this is a film of snowballing ambition, of an Australian B-movie guru’s obsession that becomes a fascinating insight into Filipino film culture; a rabbit hole of discoveries that, quite literally, goes all the way to the top.
The average cinephile with any sort of predilection for the cult or genre will likely be familiar with Weng Weng, the pint-sized James Bond knockoff that embodied everything about our idea of Z-grade foreign genre films – absurd premise, liberal ‘homage’ (to put it lightly) of Hollywood films, and some questionably technical filmmaking aspects, such as editing, that made For Y’ur Height Only the perfect cult film, alongside something like Turkish Star Wars. My own discovery is worth noting, if only for its coincidence. I booked in this documentary (and saw For Y’ur Height Only in preparation) a few weeks ago, having heard of the original film on late night television many years ago – the documentary Escape from the Planet of the Tapes, a documentary that showed on SBS or Studio about legendary video store Trash Video, had its owner talking excitedly about this absurd film. The connection only hit me at the director’s introduction for The Search for Weng Weng – director Andrew Leavold was that same owner of Trash Video until its demise, which makes sense. Few people could have this level of passion to make such a project materialise, and the filmmakers’ obsession start them on their quest.
I want to keep details of the film vague, only because it’s an extremely enjoyable and rewarding experience as the mystery unfolds. The film’s freewheeling, follow-your-nose style works extremely well, recreating the sheer sense of discovery the filmmakers have as they go through these variety of twists and turns; some of the film’s most memorable moments are some of these segues. The images of a group of former action stars sitting around swapping war-stories like a realistic, Filipino version of The Expendables captures a real sense of time passed, the best image of the recurring theme that the Golden Age of Filipino cinema, when the nation was the second biggest film industry in the 1980s, is long gone. Alternatively, the eye-opening sojourn and welcome into the world of Imelda Marcos is fascinating, leading to the 20 years embalmed body of former President Ferdinand Marcos. Fortune favours the brave, and the sheer luck the filmmakers have had in some of these encounters leads to some phenomenal viewing.
Born out of obsession, this is passionate filmmaking that ends up being far more illuminating than one might expect – enough contextualisation from academics and figures in the film to give an extremely good overview of Filipino film culture through their golden age, and its connection with the political and social currents of the time. True to its subject, this isn’t quite a glossy, overproduced documentary, but it is edited smoothly and flows very well, in spite of its multiple diversions it never lags. There’s a mild overreliance on clips from Weng Weng’s films to illustrate just about everything, but this is exciting filmmaking with high entertainment and academic value. It digs and digs, and unearths some fascinating insight – for starters, we learn there are far more Weng Weng films than anyone in the West ever knew – and with just enough lasting mystery at the end to suggest that just maybe, the film’s saga isn’t quite over. Further still, the film suggests that for every unexplored genre curio, there are dozens of fascinating stories, and that even in the age of the Internet, we really only have access to a miniscule, biased history of cinema, with hundreds and thousands of untold stories about the people that have contributed to it, big or small. Here’s hoping filmmakers like Leavold and Daniel Palisa continue on this path to preserve some of these fascinating stories before it’s too late.