In the 90s, Australian Andrew Leavold became fascinated with Weng Weng, the Philippines' biggest—and smallest—movie star. That led to a two-decade long search for the actor that's now documented in a film.
Image courtesy Firefly Entertainment
It’s a source of both wonder and awkwardness that the Philippines' most internationally recognized film star is an 32-inch-tall primordial dwarf. According to legend, Ernesto de la Cruz was so small that he lived in a shoebox for the first six months of his life. In the 1970s, he entered the Philippines' then booming and goon-obsessed film industry, got christened "Weng Weng," and morphed into the Filipino answer to James Bond.
Over the next decade, Weng Weng’s films became the country's most successful film exports. Sadly, that success didn't always translate into star treatment, and Weng Weng eventually disappeared from the public eye, living on as a cult icon in the deep recesses of 90s film subculture. That's when Australian film director and video shop owner Andrew Leavold discovered Weng Weng’s 1981 film For Y’ur Height Only. He was instantly obsessed and needed to know the star’s backstory.
Unfortunately, Weng Weng’s story ended up being a tough nut to crack. Andrew spent 20 years hunting down retired stuntmen, shonky producers, and gravestones in the Philippines. I recently spoke to him about the result of that chase: a feature-length documentary called The Search for Weng Weng.
Image courtesy of Firefly Entertainment
VICE: How did you react when you first saw For Y’ur Height Only in the early 90s?
Andrew Leavold: Well, in the opening seconds, you see a two-foot nine version of Sean Connery with a gun, and you immediately think, What the hell am I watching? You’re plunged into an alternate universe where the rules of what’s good and decent are completely turned on their head. And then you start picking up on the weird dubbing—and I’m a fan of shitty dubbing.
What’s so good about the dubbing?
This one had these Peter Lorre voices and Humphrey Bogart impressions, and it seemed to be self-aware of its inherent absurdity. Obviously the dubbers were on another plane than the filmmakers. I’ve never been able to solve the mystery of the dubbing team, but I suspect it was done by Dick Randall’s team in Rome, as there are no Asian inflections in the voices. It was a bunch of Americans sitting around in Rome, getting drunk and stoned, and making things up as they went along. That’s how Dick Randle dubbed all of his films.
It’s interesting that you say For Y’ur Height Only is aware of its absurdity—or at least the dubbers were—because some people aren’t sure if it’s a spoof or not.
Well, I remember speaking to Tony Ferrer’s son, who’s this weird little creature called Falcon. He kept insisting that his father’s films were not comedies. They were serious action films. And I said, "You don’t find the image of Weng Weng running around and punching somebody in the nuts a bit absurd?" And he said, "No! It’s a serious action film!" On one level, they’re really goon films: dumb, stunt-centric films from the Philippines, made by the thousands from the 60s to the 90s. But on another level, you have Weng Weng kind of spoofing the Filipino answer to James Bond: Agent X44.
And you can’t really escape the fact that it’s a dwarf doing James Bond stunts.
Oh, yeah! You can’t get away from that one. It’s insane and idiotic. But there is something that kind of shines between the cracks in those films, and that’s the weird, inexplicable character of Weng Weng. I think it takes a special eye to recognize that quality that shines out of him. When you do connect, you connect in a profound way. Either by going on a ridiculous lifelong odyssey to find out who he is, or you start dreaming about him. I’ve been collecting people’s dreams about Weng Weng for years.
Image courtesy Firefly Entertainment
When I first started watching your documentary, I thought, Oh god, it’s just a weird sideshow, but then you uncover his intense training and how did his own stunts. Is the magnetic quality more than that?
There’s his undeniable talent at karate and stunts, but there’s something else. There’s this weird mutant charisma that beams off him. At first you see something weird and odd, and then eventually you connect to him on a much deeper level. You end up falling in love with him, and then feeling his tragic and bittersweet story.
Your documentary definitely starts on the note of, "Isn’t this fun and cool that a dwarf became a movie star?" and then it turns into basically a story of exploitation. Was there a moment when you realized that was the core narrative?
Yeah. It’s that moment in the film when I’m sitting in a coffee shop with For Y’ur Height Only’s director Eddie Nicard and a bunch of the old stunt guys. And they said, "What happened to the money?" And Nicard said, "There was no money. We never got paid. Weng Weng never got paid." And one of the actors, Rusty Santos, turned around and said, "What? Weng Weng didn’t get to enjoy his own money? That’s bad." And he looked straight at the camera. That was the moment when I realized that Weng Weng was betrayed by his producers. He was an exploitation film star who was also exploited.
How did you feel when you realized Weng Weng was ripped off?
I was heartbroken on his behalf. Up until that moment, like everybody else, I’d heard the film editor’s comments about him being “pampered” and treated like a prince. I had no idea that the real story was so much darker. As the investigation progressed, I just felt even more devastated with each blow. So I really wanted to convey that sense of ever-increasing awareness of Weng Weng’s fragility and the betrayal by his producers, the Caballes, who sadly weren’t forthcoming for the film.
Weng Weng at Cannes. Image via Death Rides a Red Horse
What happened to Peter and Cora Caballes?
Peter died about six months after I started looking for him. Cora challenged me over the TV to come and interview her in California, so I did that with my collaborator Daniel Haig. We sat in Hollywood for three weeks and rang her answering machine every day, and she wouldn’t pick up the phone. There’s a big gaping hole in the middle of The Search For Weng Weng, and that is the absence of Cora.
So, you’ve got this story of Weng Weng’s exploitation, and then you’ve got this academic in your film who also talks about his films being “pre-modern” and not politically correct in today’s world. Should we still enjoy Weng Weng films?
Absolutely. Weng Weng may have been exploited, but not every little person who goes into the entertainment industry is exploited. We can’t condemn all midgets to a life of anonymity, just in case they might get ripped off. On my first trip to the Philippines, I went to a dwarf restaurant called Hobbit House. And I started interviewing some of the dwarf waiters. I said, "Do you ever feel that you are being exploited?" and they said, "Absolutely not. People look at us not as freaks, but as something special." I think Weng Weng’s films occupy that space to a certain extent—probably not in terms of money—but if you look at his face in the movies, he’s having an absolute blast, and so will the audience, if they approach them from a position of fun and entertainment.
Why are people so fascinated by dwarf film stars?
From a Western perspective, I guess it’s a case of "the other." We’re entering almost taboo territory these days by thinking somebody can be celebrated for their special qualities, but we’re still fascinated by deformities or extremes in height, weight, and age. I think there’s always a childlike part of us that wants to revel in the different, which is ironed out by society out as we grow up into becoming homogenous beige automatons. From a Filipino point of view, they seem to regard small people as almost otherworldly. They resemble imps or what the Filipinos call duwende. They think dwarves, midgets, and primordial dwarves like Weng Weng, which are the most special of them all, have a foot in another world.
Weng Weng with his family. Image via Death Rides a Red Horse
When he was alive, Weng Weng’s community called him "Sainto Nino"—the little saint—due to his “miracle birth” and living in a shoebox for his first six months of life. Was that saint like status just an urban legend?
I always thought that it was. Then when we screened The Search For Weng Weng outside his old house about two weeks ago, I got talking to somebody who lived two doors down from him. I asked him what he thought about the Sainto Nino thing. And he said, "Well, he healed me". And I said, "Excuse me?" And he said that he’d once broken his arm, and Weng Weng prayed over a bottle of oil and rubbed it into him, and within a couple of days it was healed. And I said, "You were healed by Weng Weng?" And he said, "We all believed there was something special about him."
'The Search For Weng Weng' is playing at Sydney Underground Film Festival this weekend.
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