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by Jay Seaver

"Sometimes small actors have big stories."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Going in, I half-thought that I had seen "The Search for Weng Weng" before, what with IMDB showing a date of 2007 on it and there being at least some time spent on the 2'9" Filipino action hero in "Machete Maidens Unleashed", another Aussie doc about the Philippine movie industry. If there was a 2007 version, though, director Andrew Leavold has added a great deal to it to make something quite memorable in its latest incarnation.

When Leovold started the film, the video store operator - 20 years running Trash Video in Brisbane - didn't realize that there was more to Weng Weng's ouevre than For Your Height Only. But, when he comes to the Philippines with a rough cut of the film and a request for any information that those in attendence have, he soon finds himself not only finding more movies Weng Weng starred in, but meeting a lot of colorful characters along the way, from former movie stars back in working class circumstances to the Marcos family.

It's not without bumps, as Leavold, something of an underground filmmaker, is filming his own quest and finds himself going around in circles a bit, often returning to the same point, letting information that will be contradicted stand, and ultimately allowing a lot of the uncertainty of making the film overshadow what he's learning during the making of it. It perhaps reflects the way he learned things, but it doesn't really feel like he's avoiding the straight line for a purpose as opposed to being new at this. Not that I'd want much of this material removed - even if a lot of the the people seem to have the same things to say, they're all worth meeting and giving enough face time that a viewer doesn't ask who that guy is when a group is shown together. Similarly, a side trip to see Imelda Marcos goes on a bit long and doesn't come across as quite so surreal as his narration builds it up to be, but it is still kind of eye-popping; there is probably another great documentary to be made about the apparent affection many Filipinos seem to still have for their long-time first lady even though westerners probably assumed that she and her husband were strung up after Ferdinand Marcos was deposed.

He also makes great use of his documentary's subject. Out of the public eye since the early 1980s, his popularity never made him rich - heck, it didn't even make him not poor after the company that produced his movies closed - everybody talks about him with great affection and no little sadness. The archive material Leavold has is striking, both for how great a physical actor he was, doing crazy stunts and commanding a scene with genuine charisma (the "pinoy" movies he did were played straight, even if they were cheap and often absurd), and how his always-looking-up eyes in the middle of a Peter Lorre face grab a viewer.

Leavold also does a pretty neat trick in how he puts the film together: Rather than just pulling out clips of Weng Weng's movies when the story reaches them chronologically, he'll drop them in when the scene illustrates some part of the story, or can be made to by presenting it out of context. It gives us a look at Weng Weng as an actor and an idea of what things might have been like instead of just having people narrate it to us.

I don't know if you could do that when making a documentary about other actors - Weng Weng's obscurity is necessary for it to work - but it makes this one a bit livelier, downright celebratory even though a much more downcast take is possible. And that's the right tone for this; though Leavold acknowledges the villains and bad situations, he never loses track of how his subject's movies brought him joy, and that's what Weng Weng should be remembered for.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=27305&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/31/14 17:45:27
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Andrew Leavold

Written by
  Andrew Leavold
  Daniel Haig

Cast
  (documentary)



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