Tuesday, December 8, 2015

LPFF 2015 reviews: Above It All, The Search for Weng Weng

Above It All (ນ້ອຍ) – It's the story of two people named Noy who want the freedom to love the way they want to love, not the way society says they should love. One is a gay medical student who has yet to come out of the closet to his parents and the girlfriend from a wealthy family they want him to marry. The other Noy is a Hmong college student who wants to buck eons-old tribal traditions and marry someone of her own choosing, not some stranger her father has found.

Outside of Laos, it'll be hard to explain why Above It All is so gosh-darned groundbreaking. But it is the first Lao feature film to specifically address homosexuality. The Hmong angle is interesting as well. I'm just not sure the two taboo love stories work together, as one might cancel out the potential audience for the other.

Much anticipated in certain circles, Above It All is the sophomore feature from Anysay Keola of the Lao New Wave Cinema collective, who debuted in 2012 with the astonishing thriller At the Horizon. It's best to keep your expectations in check. With Above It All, Anysay seems to have made a conscious stylistic choice to make his movie just like the Lao PDR's public-service and propaganda videos. The performances are old-fashionedly wooden and emotionally flat. The pacing is frustratingly slow. At one point during the film's world premiere as the official opener of the sixth Luang Prabang Film Festival, I could sense the audience's impatience, and folks were murmuring, "go on, kid, tell your dad you're gay." Then, a beat too late, Noy says it, "Dad, I like men." And everyone cheered. I think Lao people are ready for more of these types of films.

The lady Noy, meanwhile, has struck up a friendship with a young man in Vientiane, where she has been working as a waitress to put herself through college. In a way-too-cute coincidence, her man Sack happens to be the other Noy's rock-musician younger brother, the guy who has been a huge disappointment to his father. If only dad knew Sack's brother Noy was gay.

As she's ready to graduate from college, Noy's parents show up, and her father insists that she marry a Hmong gentleman in the U.S., whom she has never met. This is apparently a thing now among the Hmong people in Laos, in which Hmong daughters are being married off to, say, Hmong dentists in Minnesota, to support the impoverished family back home.

Above It All has its moments when it approaches the intensity of At the Horizon. Lady Noy gets to tell off a snotty restaurant customer who is badmouthing Hmong women. She receives backing from Sack. A surreal car-wreck serves to further bind the two stories together, and make the Dr. Noy a hero, possibly redeeming himself in his stubborn father's eyes. (3/5)

The Search for Weng Weng – Wearing an actual pith helmet like he's on an archaeological dig, cult-video purveyor/filmmaker Andrew Leavold descends into the heart of darkness in his obsessive quest to untangle the shrouds of myth from bleak reality in The Search for Weng Weng.

The 2013 documentary is another essential chapter from the 1970s and '80s era of exploitation filmmaking in the Philippines. It was a time the Filipino people would rather forget, so it's been left to foreigner genre-film fans to fill in the blanks. Previously, the scene was overviewed in Mark Hartley's informative and entertaining 2010 documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed!, which has since led to Not Quite Hollywood, covering Ozploitation, and the more recent Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films.

In Weng Weng, the Australian Leavold goes to the Philippines to track down clues about one of his obsessions – a 2-foot-9-inch movie star known as Weng Weng. Very nearly forgotten if not for Leavold, Weng Weng was a novelty bit player who was elevated to the level of action star in a string of early '80s spaghetti-and-hotdog westerns and Bond-movie spoofs such as D'Wild Wild Weng, Agent 00 and For Y'ur Height Only.

With the help of old-timer actors, directors, film editors and other friendly characters like "Rene the Legman", Leavold circles ever closer to the depressing truth about Weng Weng, whose tiny, childlike figure was the source of much mirth for movie-goers for just a blip in time. As a public figure, the diminutive Weng Weng (real name Ernesto de la Cruz) was built up into a larger-than-life figure. Trained in martial arts as a child, he was not only a movie star, but also a playboy with multiple girlfriends as well as a secret agent for the Marcos regime. In truth, he was a graceful martial artist, but lived a sad, lonely existence under the control of opportunistic husband-and-wife movie producers, who "adopted" Ernesto and saw him as a yardstick-sized cash cow rather than a human being.

It's full of bizarre revelations, but none are more surreal than when the documentary is hijacked by none other than the Philippines' former first lady Imelda Marcos, who draws Leavold and his band of cult-movie geeks into her rich pageant of self-aggrandizement.

Running just over 90 minutes, The Search for Weng Weng has a running time that belies the epic story of its making, which took eight years and cost Leavold mortages on his Brisbane video shop and brought him to kickstart the Kickstarter era in self-funded indie filmmaking. Such dedication definitely makes Weng Weng a doc you should order. (5/5)

Other films I've caught so far at the Luang Prabang Film Festival include Lao TV star Jear Pacific's latest hilarious horror-comedy-romance Huk Ey Ly 2 (Really Love 2). It had the audience in stitches with its Thai-TV-style slapstick. Judging from crowd response alone, it should be the winner of the festival's new audience award. But will the cheers of the Lao movie-goers translate to the clicks on a tablet screen that are supposed to be made as viewers pour out of the venue?

I was also happy to finally see the Thai country comedy Phoobao Thai Baan Isaan Indy (ผู้บ่าวไทบ้าน อีสานอินดี้), which was released in Thai cinemas last year. Made in the Northeastern Thai province of Khon Kaen, PBTB is a representative of a regional cinema movement of Isaan films that could easily be exported to Laos, to play in the new Platinum multiplex in Vientiane.

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