Andrew Leavold launched his new book with a screening of THE SEARCH FOR WENG WENG (2013) at The Horse Hospital — FRI 11 AUG 2017.
The other night, after completing a DIY double bill of TOM OF FINLAND and THE SEARCH FOR WENG WENG, we were hit by a slow revelation. Our evening had just been illuminated by two internationally acclaimed outlier artists who had both caused their home nations profound embarrassment. These two very different films also attempted to show us something of the human behind the pseudonym.
We’ve already posted about TOM OF FINLAND, the real life story of erotic artist Touko Laaksonen. Whilst we were slightly underwhelmed by the film’s polite behaviour, it remains a handsome biopic that deserves a strong audience. Laaksonen is now rightly celebrated in a country where his sexuality was once criminalised. His story is one of freedom’s genie escaping the bottle (one pencil drawn penis at a time).
At The Horse Hospital, author and filmmaker Andrew Leavold revealed an artist awaiting domestic rehabilitation, this time from cinema’s trash heap. Weng Weng (real life Ernesto De La Cruz) was the two foot nine ‘James Bond of the Philippines’, appearing in 00 imitations in the late 1970s and 80s. In a tale infinitely stranger than Laaksonen’s, the seven year quest to find a forgotten star pivots on two simple questions: how far would Leavold go for his fandom, and what would he discover when he got there?
To our benefit, Leavold packed up his once successful VHS rental business and went all the way. His journey from first encountering Weng Weng on a VHS copy of FOR Y’UR HEIGHT ONLY to the upper echelons of Philippine society is documented in his 2013 film, THE SEARCH FOR WENG WENG. He is now bringing matters up to date with a book and world tour.
Screening in The Horse Hospital’s gallery, the documentary comes peppered with scenes from Weng Weng’s films, prompting a near laugh riot from the audience. These quickly made films are fun-packed action adventure yarns that forever grapple with their low budget absurdity.
As Leavold digs deeper, his quest focuses on Peter and Cora Caballes, the filmmaking duo who plucked De La Cruz from obscurity and fashioned the films of Weng Weng. Old stagers from the Filipino film industry tell of the films’ success and the likely exploitation of their star. Partly betraying cultural differences, Leavold’s subjects repeatedly describe the actor as ‘childlike’ and express surprise at discovering he was a ‘real boy’. We also learn of how the Marcos dictatorship attempted to use culture to cohere Filipino society and court foreign investment. The resultant feeding frenzy saw nearly 300 movies produced annually before the industry dissolved into lost reels, forgotten films and bitter recriminations. None of this made Leavold’s search any easier.
Given the lunacy inherent to Weng Weng’s true story (we won’t spoil all of the plot twists here), there is danger that Leavold basks in sensationalism. The evening takes a startling shift towards sincerity when our traveller discovers Weng Weng’s real family. They talk fondly of life with their brother and confirm cruel exploitation*. Importantly, they also replace accusations of ‘naive innocence’ with stories of shy talent. Leavold’s deeper mission becomes one of rehabilitating Weng Weng’s legacy amongst those people that lived and worked with him. The doc ends with scenes of Weng Weng’s films being screened for his family and film industry pros. The wonder that emerges shows the actor and martial artist’s story is far from over.
As with his own search, an evening with Leavold reveals love for a forgotten film star that could easily have been obscured by lurid tales of an entirely different time and place. What emerges through the film, talk and conversation is Leavold’s concern for Ernesto De La Cruz’s own happiness, respect for his agency as an actor and joy at his onscreen endeavours. This dual act of archaeology goes to the heart of why we hunt for adventurous moving pictures. They really can take you on a journey unlike any other.
HUNGRY FOR MORE?
- THE SEARCH FOR WENG WENG is available on DVD in the UK. Here’s a link to the big river where it’s also available on demand (free if you’re Prime).
- Weng Weng’s films remain scattered across YouTube. Titles include: FOR Y’UR HEIGHT ONLY, THE IMPOSSIBLE KID, DA BEST IN DA WEST.
- Check out Weng Weng’s career at IMDb and wikipedia.
- THE SEARCH FOR WENG WENG book is published by The LedaTape Organisation.
- Follow the world book tour on Facebook.
- And finally… Leavold promised to return for THE LOST FILMS OF WENG WENG, his mashup of three of Ernesto De La Cruz’s movies.
*As an audience we were sworn to secrecy about some of the most grievous offences, although it’s hard to know for sure where Leavold’s hyperbole starts and ends.