Thursday, November 28, 2013

Andrew Leavold's forum on Pinoy Grindhouse movies (or, the story of his search for Weng-Weng)

Blood (red, green, and splattered all over). Boobies (perky, taut, and free from silicone implants). Bullets (and bamboo spears and lots of bombings).

These are the elements of the B-movies, which were the focus of Andrew Leavold’s November 4, 2010 lecture at UP Videotheque. Popular fare in drive-in theaters, these movies also end up as the second, lesser film in a twin-bill offering. Ranging from horror films, women-in-prison dramas, post-apocalyptic revenge flicks, they have been described as trash, crass, and low class. But, to those hordes of people who grew up watching them in Betamax or VHS tapes, these films have been wonderful guilty pleasures. Judging from the audience response to a preview of Mark Hartley's documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed, a new generation of moviegoers is ready to partake of the sumptuous silliness of Philippine-made grindhouse movies.

Some of the more memorable cheesy exploitation films were made and produced in our country. Quentin Tarantino remarked that the Philippines is unique in being a filmmaking country with two distinct industries. There is a film industry that caters to local audiences. LVN Films, Regal Films, and Star Cinema belong to this group. There is another film industry that caters exclusively to international viewers. This segment is responsible for the Roger Corman-produced horror films, Eddie Romero's Blood Island trilogy, and the Chuck Norris actioners.

Leavold spoke of how Filipino visionaries and businessmen such as Conrado ‘Boy’ Puzon, Bobby Suarez, and Cirio Santiago dabbled into this goldmine of exporting films. Puzon bought local films for a pittance. He refurbished and dubbed them into foreign languages. He made lots of money selling them to video and film distributors all over the world. The Anthony Alonzo-starrer W is War made it to Europe. An IMDB reviewer described the film as ‘one of the bizarre masterpieces’ from Europe. Suarez initially started dubbing Chinese films into English. He then made a couple of films such as Cleopatra Wong and The One-Armed Executioner, both of which penetrated the almost-impregnable North American market.

Cirio Santiago is a name I grew up with. As a teenager I used to borrow tapes from the neighborhood Betamax rental store twice a month. There came a time when I have watched all the famous films (read: award-winners and commercial hits). I started venturing out with unknown titles. One of those obscure titles I saw was Cirio Santiago’s Stryker.

Theatrically released in the Philippines as Battle Truck, Stryker tells the story of a loner in a post-apocalyptic world. Good guys and bad guys fight it out over scarce water. They ride in armored-clad cars, gas-guzzling motorcycles, and a heavily-fortified truck. It had been years since that fateful viewing but I still remember the midget pissing on the lead character’s face, the scantily-clad girls, and the truck magically evading all sorts of obstacles (Shoot the wheels! Shoot the wheels! Aah, idiots). I didn’t know then that it was a rip-off of Road Warrior. I was just a high school kid having lots of fun watching it. My enjoyment of the film was amplified because the film was made in the Philippines. Wow! I became more proud because the international film was directed by a Pinoy filmmaker. Little did I know that those exported films will reach, and profoundly affect, other kids like Quentin Tarantino, who ended up as an ardent fan.

On the other side of the world, an Australian boy in Bahrain makes do with pirated tapes of films. He encounters some outlandish films with actors of unknown nationality. They don’t look like Chinese and they neither resemble Mexicans. A close encounter with a 2.9 feet midget named Weng-Weng sets the young Leavold to begin probing the origin of those films. Having identified them to be Philippine-made, he scours for more of those weirdly-attractive films. The decades-long passion for Pinoy B-movies resulted in a documentary, a doctoral thesis, and a humongous, to-die-for collection of 700 tapes/videos of obscure Philippine-made films.

Leavold is an engaging speaker with lots of stories to tell. He narrates how Cirio Santiago would usually bring a jeepney at Malate and hauls aboard a troop of almost drunk, sleepy Caucasians willing to join the day’s shoot. He also speaks of how marketing savvy people pushed up the name of local actor/s to top billing even if he/she appears only for a few minutes in the international film.

Leavold’s inexhaustible love and respect for those Pinoy B-movies has a magical way of rubbing on to his listeners. A UP Film graduate complained that she had a hard time getting access to those B-movies. Leavold then spoke of a magical place where nearly all the rare stuff that film buffs want to view is available. Quiapo is the place where he finally got a copy of Romero's The Ravagers. The pretty graduate then remarked that she may have to break her vow of not buying pirated DVDs. Those B-movies seem to be so irresistibly fun.

A Caucasian friend of Leavold told of how scared he was during their sojourn to Quiapo. On the day major western countries issued travel advisories, there they were in crowded Quiapo. He kept hearing 'Americans, Americans' in the utterances of the people. He might have been a new visitor who mistook the people's hospitality and over-eagerness to help for hostile acts. What about Leavold? Well, he didn't mention any untoward incidents. He just mentioned that he wants to learn Filipino in order to better understand the films of Chiquito. In fact, he will return to the Philippines in 2011 to shoot an action film with the members of what he affectionately calls the goon community of local cinema.

In 2007, Quentin Tarantino brought his stash of Pinoy B-films for screening at the Cinemanila festival. He also rode a pedicab in going to Malacañang Palace. In 2010, Andrew Leavold braved the throng in Quiapo to get his loot of priceless pirated DVDs. If these distinguished people were willing to risk their limbs just to put the spotlight on Pinoy B-movies, then those films must have been worth viewing.

Haven't seen a B-movie? Take the plunge and explore the fascinating flipside of Philippine cinema. The films are outrageously funny and adventurous, and just like comfort food, they are nice to devour once in a while.

Original online posting in November 2010

Update: Andrew Leavold's documentary The Search for Weng Weng premieres tomorrow, November 29, 2013 at UP Film Institute's Cine Adarna.

I've seen the Cinemalaya cut of the documentary and it is way, way better than the stodgy Machete Maidens Unleashed documentary. The Search for Weng Weng chronicles the huge Australian's obsession with the Filipino midget actor Weng-Weng. 

It eschews the boring heads-only interviews and takes the viewers across the Philippine island of Luzon. I had a big laugh over the filmmakers' misadventures at the lavish dinner by Imelda Marcos. I was intrigued with reports about Weng-Weng's magnetic charm with women. Ultimately, it made me search out for the Weng-Weng movies. I bet you will, too.

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