Playing tomorrow night only at Filmbar Phoenix:
The Search for Weng Weng—Australian movie geek Andrew Leavold, long fascinated by the diminutive Filipino action star known as Weng Weng, made this chronicle of his investigation into the man’s life and career. “Diminutive” is really an inadequate adjective for Weng Weng—at 2 foot nine, Weng Weng is listed by the Guinness Book as the shortest male movie star ever (Harry Earles, the star of Freaks, was three or four inches taller). One of Weng Weng’s fetching costars describes him as “Very petite, like a potato.”
Born into extreme poverty as Ernesto Dela Cruz (the moniker “Weng Weng” is said to have been a reference to a famous cocktail), he showed an early aptitude for martial arts which brought him to the attention of the husband and wife producing team of Peter and Cora Caballes. After some bit and supporting parts in the ‘70s, they gave him the lead in a couple of low-budget actioners, the most high-profile of which, 1981’s For Y’ur Height Only, became an international moneymaker. Weng Weng plays Interpol Agent 00, who flies with a jetpack, mows down “goons” by the dozen with a machine gun and romances sultry sirens, all with the same unperturbed, faintly melancholy look on his face.
Leavold quickly learned that Weng Weng’s career was exploitation in every sense of the word. Not only did Pete and Cora Caballes—they were known as “Ninong” and “Ninang,” or Godfather and Godmother—exploit Weng Weng’s stature, they also paid him virtually nothing. By the late ‘80s, when Cora had entered politics, they stopped making movies, and Weng Weng ended up back in poverty until his death of a heart attack in 1992 at the age of 34, a few years older than the usual life expectancy for people with his type of dwarfism.
It’s a sad story, but it seems likely that it’s less sad than Weng Weng’s life would have been if he had never ended up in the movies—by all accounts he greatly enjoyed the work. Leavold’s lively, unpretentious documentary has marvelous interview material, from Weng Weng’s sweet family to his garrulous, funny colleagues in Filipino showbiz to that country’s sheepish film historians to, get ready, Imelda Marcos herself, who allowed Leavold to interview her on her 83rd birthday.
Marcos and family were hardcore movie lovers—a disturbingly common trait among brutal dictators—and supporters of their homegrown film industry (the nostalgia for their regime among the moviemakers is palpable) and Weng Weng was a welcomed visitor to their home. There were even stories that he was an actual government agent.
Crazily, it’s the former First Lady who puts the most positive spin on Weng Weng’s story: “The appearance of Weng Weng showed the great spirit of the Filipino people. They can make a hero of a disabled, distorted guy. So, everybody had a chance. They had such a democratic attitude. Filipinos have no prejudices.”
Leavold is scheduled to appear at the Filmbar screening, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.