Unexpectedly tonight was one of the festival highlights for me. All of the right elements were in place I guess. ACMI is a fantastic cinema venue and I always love watching films on their screens. While they're modern cinemas they also feel classic. The screen is the perfect size and just the right distance from the seats. Anyhow, I arrived an hour early and grabbed myself a coffee. It was an unreal coffee too, but you don't need to know that. Twenty minutes before the doors opened I caught up with a fellow blogger/critic and friend John Noonan and his friend. We had a great nerdy conversation about some of the films we've seen and for the most part we seemed in tune with each other. It was great to have some like minded peeps to sit with and we were finally separated from the portly "blogger" stereotype that FilmInk recently described in an amusing blog. We had come to see THE SEARCH FOR WENG WENG.
Director Andrew Leavold has made a name for himself as an authority of obscure cult cinema. He is well known for previously owning one of the most celebrated video stores in Australia, TRASH VIDEO, and has previously directed one other 50 minute film called LESBOS A GO-GO. That was an arcane, rarely seen exploitation film that I actually liked a lot and recently contributed to a retrospective documentary, GONE LESBO GONE. 11 years have passed since his first film and Andrew Leavold has spent much of that time discussing cinema on panels and at various other festivals and events. Oh yeah and he also spent 7 of those years making his latest film THE SEARCH FOR WENG WENG.
Weng Weng was a Filipino movie star during the 1970s who made a series of cheap James Bond knock-off films. At the time he was a sensation and mingled with some of the film industry's elite. He was an odd character and what made him so sought after was his stature. As described in the film, he wasn't a midget. Nor was he a dwarf. He was simply a miniature person. Andrew Leavold fell in love with Weng Weng 20 years ago when he first saw one of his films on VHS. Upon investigation he discovered that Weng Weng had faded into obscurity with little information about him available. And so over the course of 7 years Leavold delved head first into the Filipino film industry and turned over every stone in hopes of solving the mystery of what happened to Weng Weng.
I have followed the production of the project for some time and have watched it go through various fundraising efforts and attempts to get it made. To be honest I had kept my expectations low. I was cautious that it might be a vanity project and expected a lot of self indulgence. I was pleasantly surprised. What Leavold has delivered is an impassioned and heartfelt exploration into the life of an exploited and forgotten star. The film is told as a quest and Leavold puts the viewer in his shoes. We are as keen to unravel the mystery as he is and the story of Weng Weng is completely mesmerising. With loads of classic footage, fantastic interviews and unexpected discoveries the film is a delight. At no point do you know where the film is going and to Leavold's credit, he steers the story perfectly. His relationship with the Philippines in general is a romantic one and his love for the Filipino film industry is infectious. It's important to keep in mind that this is his first feature length film and so he is still cutting his teeth. The product is impressive considering that fact. It's well filmed, extensively researched and humorously told. It's also tragic and heartbreaking and all the while surprising. Who'd 'av thought that Imelda Marcos would have embraced Leavold and his crew so much that we're taken inside the tomb of Ferdinand as his preserved corpse is on display for viewing? Truly bizarre. My only true criticism of the film is that much of it is unnecessarily subtitled. Many of the perfectly distinguishable accents are assisted with subtitles and it is distracting. I kept catching myself reading the words, realising that I could clearly understand what they were saying. A small criticism. The film is wonderful.
And to cap the night off I was greeted to a beautiful view of the cityscape and drove home listening to PET SOUNDS. Yep. It was a great night.