The Great Manila Cinema Heist! A Brief History of Philippine Parody and Outright Thievery in the Country That Copyright Forgot By Andrew Leavold. I still remember watching my first exploitation classic from the Philippines, the James Bond spoof For Y‘ur Height Only (1981), almost twenty years ago...
I still remember watching my first exploitation classic from the Philippines, the James Bond spoof For Y‘ur Height Only (1981), almost twenty years ago. Over the astounding course of the ratty VHS tape’s running time our 2 foot 9 inch hero Agent 00 played by Weng Weng, a curious little brown creature with a receding Ramones bowl cut and an all-white suit and trick straw boater hat, cracks an international drug ring, gets the girl, loses the girl ("Irmaaaaa!") and infiltrates the secret lair of evil criminal mastermind Mr. Giant (played, appropriately enough, by a dwarf named Goliath!), all with an armful of miniature gadgets and his signature move of punching someone in the balls, then running between the person’s legs.
It’s not just the novelty of seeing a Filipino dwarf pretending to be a gun expert and ladies’ man, or the inexplicable thrill of watching bad (and I mean bad) kung-fu movies. Maybe it’s the mad vision of a Manila caught in a perpetual ’70s twilight of bad disco, Marlboro Man moustaches, flared collars and equally flared nostrils. Absurd, tangential logic abounds, as does the knee-jerk colonial impulse to subvert and embrace their dominant Western culture simultaneously. For me, For Y‘ur Height Only rammed a point home with a vengeance, that the Philippines’s relationship with Hollywood is a strange mixture of awe and loathing; beneath the "Hello Joe"s you’re not sure if they’re trying to steal your jeans or stick you in the ribs with their balisong blade. An outsider will never know precisely where the awe ends and the loathing begins. On the surface at least there’s a playfulness, an anarchic and gleefully deranged rearranging of pop motifs for amusing and delirious effect. It should add up, but doesn’t. And it doesn’t matter; for whatever the reasons, the Philippines B-film can be as addictive as the local crack (known as "shiboo") and the hit lasts a lifetime.
Once I started travelling to the Philippines and began wading through the morass of unexplored Tagalog language B films, I soon discovered that Weng Weng was just the top balancer’s toupee on the enormous human pyramid of parodists, and there existed a culture unfamiliar and fundamentally unfathomable to the rest of the world: one of wholesale, guilt-free and consequence-free commandeering of global and local pop iconography via clever counterfeiting, relentless lampooning or direct theft. Unlike their Turkish counterparts, Filipino filmmakers were never so brazen as to steal entire sections of footage and edit it without shame into their own knockoffs of Star Trek or The Empire Strikes Back. In the Philippines, musical cues, theme songs, story ideas, characters and titles were nevertheless all up for grabs, either stolen without a thought paid to the copyright holders, or fed through the Pinoy Pop Culture mincing machine ("Pinoy" being the colloquial term for "Filipino"), to emerge as a mutant amalgam or queer multi-hatted hybrid. Despite being signatories to the Berne Convention since 1950, the tyranny of distance and cost of mounting court proceedings in a foreign country gave free rein to these scoundrels and opportunists, or Dadaists and post-modern revolutionaries, depending upon your political persuasion, taste for adventure, and personal limits of patience and perseverance.
Humor never travels well. Sadly, much of the Philippines’s cinema prior to the mid-’80s is lost forever, and those few Filipino comedies that have made it beyond the Philippines’s borders, dubbed poorly and thus losing much of their raison d'être in the transition, have done so for the most bizarre reasons and under the most freakish of circumstances. That leaves the bulk of their comedies unreleased to the outside world and not subtitled, making their puns, wordplay, cultural references and mangled English (beyond the conventional mix of English and Tagalog known as "Taglish") completely incomprehensible.
Then there’s the recognition factor that’s lost on us foreigners, the delight in watching sometimes decades-old shtick, which often requires some comedians to be left on the shelf long past their use-by date. More so than parody, much of Philippine comedy is of the romantic or domestic variety; sticky and sickly sentimental, and centering on family misunderstandings, teen love affairs, hen-pecked husbands and screeching mothers-in-law, but countered by a streak of derision and decidedly politically incorrect cruelty, aimed at taking childish glee at the differences of the "other." This translates roughly to a carnival-like atmosphere, in which audiences gawp at the grotesquely fat, emaciated, freakishly tall, small, toothless, bald, screamingly effeminate, stooped, stuttering, cross-eyed, brown- or black-skinned and, by Filipino standards, plain ugly.
Dolphy Vs. Chiquito
Until his death in July 2012, Dolphy real name Rodolfo Vera Quizon was the Philippines’s King of Comedy, the personification of local humor and certainly one of the most prolific and talented comedians and actors of his post-World War II generation. Dolphy’s individual films are elements of a much grander story arc, almost a meta-narrative spread over fifty-plus years, with its main protagonist growing older disgracefully, and his supporting cast and crew entering and leaving at will, more often than not becoming familiar parts of the background scenery. Wives, girlfriends and siblings appear, along with children and eventually grandchildren. Families are at the core of Filipino culture and are reflected in the Dolphy’s own film company RVQ Productions: from its inception in 1967 and through its glory days into the ’80s, it was a dynastic studio dynamo for the Quizon clan. And Dolphy more than generously shared (and still shares) the limelight. The cherry-picked icons from both foreign and domestic pop culture, the interchangeable plotlines of Western spoofs and goon comedies, domestic soap operas and their ilk, the recycled characters (the droopy-shouldered Ompong, the flamboyant Pacifica Falayfay), the movies, radio shows, stage performances and TV series, are all episodes of a seemingly endless variety show, with Dolphy center stage as its amiable emcee.
The Philippines’s love-hate relationship with Hollywood began long before World War II and Dolphy’s ascent to the King of Comedy throne. Almost as soon as America took over the colonial administration from Spain in 1898, cinema along with radio, printed press and comics, or "komiks" was utilized to Americanize the population. The Philippines’s own thriving film industry could date itself as far back as the early 1900s, with melodramas, thrillers, comedies and musicals aping Hollywood but in Tagalog, and also mirroring much of its Hispanic stage culture of musical zarzuelas.
The Japanese occupation ground local filmmaking to a halt. Aside from the few that screened Japanese propaganda films and newsreels, cinemas were converted back to theatres, and the country’s stage culture was busier than ever. Dolphy began his career as a song and dance man and vaudeville comedian during World War II, and when those theatre people gravitated toward the flourishing studio system in the late ’40s and early ’50s, Dolphy went too. He was handed a decade-long contact with Sampaguita Pictures, one of the Big Three studios along with LVN Pictures and the Santiago family’s Premiere Productions, and quickly graduated from bit roles and comic second banana parts to leading man in musical comedies. He encapsulated a droopy-shouldered and slightly potbellied Pinoy Everyman: a cowardly if lovable loser tied to his wife’s apron strings, or wily would-be trickster who turns out "good" in the end. Men identified with him, women adored him; before long he was making a movie a month in addition to TV and radio appearances.
In stage and radio shows, parody songs and comic routines based on pop culture references were long recognized as part of a comedian’s stock in trade. For the movies, it would take the fall of the Big Three studio system in the early ’60s, and the studios’ formulae with them, for comedy to evolve past frothy musical comic romances. In the world of independent producers, many of them stars themselves wanting control over material and their own precious public images, the comedian was able to take more of the center stage and brought with him his vaudevillian bag of tricks. It was open season on Western pop culture, and Dolphy seized upon the opportunity to run with it.
If we’re talking sheer quantity over quality, Philippines cinema from the ’60s to the ’80s was truly in a golden age, a period in which between 150 and 250 films a year were produced. That’s a staggering amount of Tagalog-language films, an overwhelming number of which were never dubbed or subtitled into other languages and exported past the Philippines borders, shot on 35mm film for the nation’s relatively impoverished audience.
And yet, like other cinematic outposts such as Mexico, Turkey and India, the film industry boomed. Alongside radio and komik books, movies were a cheap and easily accessible form of mass entertainment, and the population took their own movies to their hearts, allowing the studios to maintain an elaborate system of stars, uniquely Pinoy forms of storytelling, and their own stable of komik superheroes and supervillains. Throughout the ’60s until well into the ’90, "goon" films reigned supreme the action-centric movies named after a villain’s ape-like henchmen, and a staple of Filipino cinema right into the ’80s. That these "goons" are the Philippines’s finest stuntmen and action stars-in-waiting only adds to the gritty rough-and-tumble of these films’ ubiquitous fight scenes.
In the ’60s, the action king was Fernando Poe Jr., also known as FPJ or "Da King." His comedic counterpart, the king of the Goon Parodies was Dolphy. Aside from sentimental family-centric comedy, parodies of Hollywood and European movies soon became Dolphy’s forte, and he played the Pinoy version of everyone from the Lone Ranger to the local Tarzan, Tanzan The Mighty (1962, followed by 1963’s Tansan vs Tarsan), from weedy Pinoy komik hero Captain Barbell (1964, and Captain Barbell Boom! in 1973) to an effeminate Darna...Kuno?/Darna...Fake? (1979), from Genghis Bond (1965) to Adolphong Hitler (1969). In a career covering an astounding 240-plus features, 1966 was Dolphy’s peak year: starring roles in nineteen features, or almost one movie a fortnight. The sheer volume of Dolphy’s output suggests a much larger, well-oiled machine grinding out quickly made and comfortably generic though certainly not inferior product, with the Dolphy brand ensuring audience goodwill and return trade. In the ’65 to ’66 period, Dolphy’s films were primarily "goon" parodies, or more precisely, spoofs on then-popular trends with dedicated action sequences; as a trained dancer and physical comedian, Dolphy was a natural, if unlikely, action star. In contrast to his lighter Sampaguita vehicles from the ’50s and early ’60s, goon comedies downplayed frothy romance and song and dance numbers in favor of relentless stunts and on-screen fist fights. In his western spoofs he’s eyeball-to-eyeball with a baddie in a black hat and an army of apes in stetsons; in Pambihirang Dalawa: Sa Combat/Remarkable Two: In Combat (1966) it’s Dolphy, his regular fall guy Panchito, and a bevy of women in long skirts against the Japanese army.
During Dolphy’s busiest phase, the genre du jour was the James Bond craze. Most Western-influenced film cultures were churning out one gadget-laden spy caper after the other, and the Philippines’s copycat industry was more voracious than most. Following Goldfinger’s worldwide release in 1964, no fewer than twenty Pinoy Bonds appeared within a manic two year cycle the Lagalag films with Eddie Rodriguez, mostly directed by Cirio H. Santiago, Albert Alonzo as Agent 69, the list goes on. The most popular and enduring of all was Tony Ferrer as Tony Falcon aka Agent X-44, a karatista and devout ladies’ man in real life to the point where the public and private personas became inseparable. From his first of more than 30 adventures in 1965 to his self-referential appearances as Weng Weng’s boss in For Y‘ur Height Only and as the original Tony Falcon in Joyce Bernal’s Austin Powers-like Agent X-44 (2007), Ferrer truly belonged in his trademark tailored white suits and x-ray sunglasses, and his non-Falcon films never had quite the same impact.
As every popular Pinoy genre must have its parodic mirror, so too did the Bond Parodies begin in earnest, most notably from the rival Kings of Comedy. The closest contender to Dolphy’s crown in terms of longevity, cultural impact and sheer volume, is Chiquito, born August V. Pangan: a cheeky-faced mimic, dancer and slapstick specialist, and younger brother of Rene Pangan, one of Dolphy’s dancing partners in the ’40s. Chiquito trod the vaudeville stage as early as seven, then worked his way up through the ranks at Premiere Productions as a comic foil opposite a youthful Fernando Poe Jr. and Zaldy Zshornack in the Lo’Waist Gang movies; he was also a jockey, motorcycle cop and pilot, a self-confessed "Jack of All Trades," and before his death in 1997, councilor and Vice-Mayor of Makati. At last count Chiquito starred in, wrote, produced or directed a total of 264 films, compared to Dolphy’s 245 as actor and producer. Theirs was a friendly rivalry, as was the one between Action Kings FPJ and Joseph Estrada, and they starred in a number of films together in the ’60s: Chiquito as James Bandong or Agent 0-2-10 ("oh-two-ten" is a play on "utoten," the Tagalog word for "farter" for "fart-face"), and Dolphy as Agent 1-2-3 (the name suggests a person’s been tricked) or in variations on the "Dolphinger" theme. In Dolphy’s filmography from 1965 to 1966, a minimum of fifteen features can lay claim to parodying the spy genre, or to at least include elements of the Bond films and that’s a considerable number of Bondian villains with goon armies at their disposal.
James Batman was released in 1966, at the height of the Filipino komik superhero and spy craze, featuring Dolphy as James Bond and Batman and often in the same scene! The "international" crime fighters are both called in to weed out nefarious organization CLAW and their leader, the cartoonish Oriental Drago. Dolphy is hilarious as Bond, complete with lecherous sneer and a checkered jacket that matches the bedspreads, and it’s a role Dolphy’s more than familiar with, having already starred in a slew of spy knockoffs Dolphinger, Dr. Yes, Operation Butterball to name just three. But it’s his Batman where the film comes alive and he steals the scenes from himself: crazed fight sequences, sadly with no Tagalog equivalents of "BIFF!" and "POW!", but with exaggerated tilts and low angles, and Carding Cruz’s ever-present stolen surfadelic score. There’s an array of other villains, not to mention an army of nurses with pre-war tommy guns, an all-girl squad with low-cut black cocktail dresses and executioners’ hoods, and the ending in Drago’s lair complete with a huge hand for a chair spitting lasers from the fingertips kicks the entire Manila-A-Go-Go enterprise up one big lunatic notch.
In Napoleon Doble and the Sexy Six (also 1966), the omniscient Dolphy once again fills almost every frame and sometimes twice! As Napoleon Doble, Dolphy trades in his secret agent badge for one with the NBI. The film opens in wham-bam style, with Napoleon shooting it out with machine guns as his nemesis Elias (also Dolphy, much-gnarled but, under the latex moles, still recognizable) robs a bank and makes a hasty getaway. The ’30s gangster-style car crashes and somehow Elias drags the stolen loot back to his mansion hideaway, where Girlfriend Number One (Lucita Soriano) and his trusted scientist-slash-plastic surgeon (Carlos Diaz) perform a face-changing operation under strict orders to make him look just like Napoleon Doble.
Elias, the dark Hyde to Dolphy’s likeable Pinoy Jekyll, is a hoot: cold, calculating slits for eyes and a sardonic smirk, and with a harem of five girlfriends on call, all top-shelf Pinoy starlets who are forced to line up and have their cocktail frocks ripped down in one of Elias’s cleavage inspections! Not content with merely a Foxy Five, Elias decides to recruit a Sexy Sixth, and as fate would have it, stalks the gorgeous Anna (Lourdes Mendel), a dancer at his own nightclub and, the same girl courted by Napoleon. Anna, of course, only has eyes for the real Napoleon, yet Elias is undeterred, and takes her refusal to bare her cleavage as a sign she’s the new Number One Girlfriend, a position jealously fought over by the Foxy Five in a messy, drunken, all-in catfight. A complicated web of mistaken identities that old hackneyed comedic standby! ensues, with Elias stealing NBI files while posing as Napoleon, and ends with Napoleon and Anna trapped in a cell in Elias’s mansion at the mercy of a leering, power-hungry and clearly insane Elias.
Although Dolphy’s Napoleon Doble presents himself to the filmic world as an undercover policeman, he’s essentially Dolpinger: a government representative of the forces of good, facing off against a supervillain with a lair choked to the brim with Bondian gadgets (a pen, for instance, that doubles as a ray gun), not to mention his very own Q on tap. Bond allusions aside, Dolphy takes characteristically low swipes at other ’60s pop icons, not least The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Napoleon "Solo" being the obvious reference point, plus a sizeable portion from U.N.C.L.E. feature The Spy With My Face (1965). Let’s not forget the Pink Panther series, notably Ponga’s Kato-like Mr. Tan, a Chinese caricature saved by Napoleon during the bank robbery, and whose housebound karate fights with Napoleon usually end up trounced by the equally chop-frenzied maid (Aruray).
As with Dolphy, Chiquito’s name became synonymous with cheeky parodies of Hollywood and European genres. Chiquito was buck-toothed Chinese superspy Mr. Wong, Gorio the Jeepney Driver, the village quack Mang Kepweng, and was versatile enough to play the occasional action hero, having learned karate. Much of Chiquito’s considerable output is gone forever, leaving behind only newspaper ads for titles such as Bulilit Al Capone (1963), Alyas Fumanchu (1964), The Pinoy Beatles (1964), Alyas Tarsan (1972), The Wild Grease (1978), Vontes V/Voltes 5 (1979), and The Six Million Centavo Man (1980).
One surviving title worth mentioning is Cirio Santiago’s production of Arizona Kid (1970). For over ten years, Pinoy cowboys rode the high plains of Pampanga and Ilocos, but it took Chiquito to make it to the real Wild West Almaria in Spain, that is, home of the spaghetti western and the birthplace of The Man with No Name. Chiquito plays Ambo, a Filipino innocent with barely two words of English to rub together, dumped in a random border town while looking for his uncle, and convinced by a sexpot saloon girl (B Queen Mamie Van Doren) to pose as a famous gunslinger and rid a town of the evil El Coyote (American expat Gordon Mitchell). Meanwhile the real marksman (’60s action star and Pinoy James Bond, Bernard Bonnin), sweetheart of rancher Don Miguel’s daughter Ramona, spends the film’s enjoyably silly shootout ending picking off Coyote’s henchmen. Every western cliché and Bob Hope setup is rolled into future auteur Lino Brocka’s script, which provides classic Chiquito moments galore but is dragged down by its regulation two-hour running time. Cirio, having already filmed Dolphy as El Pinoy Matador (1970) in Spain, does a good job corralling his players, with the possible exception of poor, dazed looking Ms. Van Doren, whose career in Albert Zugsmith potboilers couldn’t possibly have prepared her for a Balut/Spaghetti Western hybrid ("balut" is the crunchy embryo boiled alive inside duck eggs), and whose voice is dubbed by what sounds like Tijuana’s most unconvincing female impersonator. "Ambo! My heeeeero!"
Cross-eyed, guitar-strumming Pablo Virtuoso (famously of the Pitong Pasiklab team of Pugo, Lopito, Pugak, Tugak, Pablo, Pabo and Bentot, as well as a Fernando Poe Jr. sidekick) joined the parodists and starred in a number of comedies in the late ’60s, all spoofs: not as Our Man Flint, but as his cracked Filipino mirror image Agent 070 in Our Man Duling (1969) and The Man from A.N.K.L.A. (1970), as a cockeyed Zatoichi in Zato Duling: The Cross - Eyed Swordsman (1969), and in the war "epic" Toro! Tora! Toray! (1971). Our Man Flint also gave rise to a vehicle for fellow comedian Tintoy in Agent Flintoy (1970). Movie titles, too, became fair game: the Trinity films spawned a western comedy Trinidad Is My Name (1977) starring the cowboy Jun Aristorenas’s wife Virginia, and the bomba (or softcore porn) comedy They Call Me Trining (1972). Dirty Harry became Dirty Hari/Dirty King (1972) for the King of Karate, Roberto Gonzales; and the Filipino version of Jesus Christ Superstar (1972) is one lost film I’m praying will drop from the heavens one day.
The Pinoy Bruce Lees
As seen by the volume of James Bond parodies in the mid ’60s, comedies are a good barometer of which films exist in the public’s frame of reference in any given period. Bond mimic Luis San Juan (Dr. Yes, James Bandong) continued into the ’70s parroting pop trends, from goofy war comedies like Chiquito’s The Pogi Dozen/The Handsome Dozen (1968), westerns Omar Cassidy and the Sandalyas Kid (1970) and spy films We Only Live Wa - is (1968) to the more serious bomba films. In 1972 he picked up on the new trend for Hong Kong kung-fu films, particularly those of a rising star named Bruce Lee, a Chinese-American actor who was making a name for himself in a series of films for Shaw Brothers’ main rival Golden Harvest. Lee’s signature film The Big Boss thus went through San Juan’s fevered imagination and emerged as the impossibly titled The Pig, Boss. In Lee’s place was popular TV identity Ramon Zamora, best known at the time as both a comedian and song-and-dance man in the dying stages of the vaudeville circuit and a regular on the local version of American TV’s Laugh - In, Super Laff - In, with his recurring character of a cripple possessed by the spirit of a dead Nazi in full storm trooper outfit and Hitler moustache spouting a barrage of Germanese gibberish. Oh, and he could do kung-fu and had mystical powers. The character’s one decipherable line, if you can call it that, was to be Zamora’s famous pidgin German catchphrase, "Isprakenhayt!" (also the name of Super Laff - In’s spin-off feature in 1973).
Zamora was soon handed his own Monday night show on ABS-CBN’s sister station Channel 4. Mission: Patok, a secret agent forerunner of Charlie‘s Angels, saw Zamora playing a secret agent variant on the Bosley character next to June Keithley, Baby O’Brien and Aris Bautista, taking orders from a voice on the end of a machine. The mixture of humor and action suited Zamora’s charming, easy-going everyman persona; President Marcos then declared martial law and ground ABS-CBN to a halt, and Zamora reappeared with the remnants of the Super - Laff - In crew on Channel 7’s Laughing Stock. Government control over the material was endemic, and proved there was nothing particularly funny about martial law; Zamora’s switch to leading man in feature films was timely.
The Bruceploitation formula proved a winner; San Juan followed The Pig, Boss in July 1972 with another Lee mangling, Fish Of Fury (Fist Of Fury), and in August with a Meng Fei rip, The King Plaster (The King Boxer). Along with fellow box-office rivals Jimmy Wang Yu, best known as The One - Armed Swordsman, and Chen Xing, Meng Fei was proving to be a popular star in Escolta’s Chinatown cinemas, and thus was a comfortable target. The most telling title of San Juan’s short-lived kung-fu parody cycle is the final all-out assault from February 1973, The Radical Boxer (Meng Fei’s The Prodigal Boxer) Challenges the Big Boss. The poster jokingly refers to "Ramon ‘Bruce Lee’ Zamora" it would not be long before a film’s credits would list him, in all earnestness, as "The Bruce Lee of the Philippines."
Just as global pop culture was reeling from the punch to the head that signaled Bruce Lee’s arrival, his passing in July 1973 caused a shockwave that was felt around the world. More than a flash in the pan, Enter the Dragon (1973) had made Bruce Lee a universal brand, on the same phenomenally massive meta-level as Elvis Presley and the Beatles, and as the old saying goes, it’s hard to keep a good man down. The vacuum left by his premature departure sucked in all kinds of racketeers and poseurs claiming to be the next Bruce Lee, and for at least five years after Bruce Lee’s death the martial arts world was obsessed with keeping his filmic legacy alive. There were documentaries, fake documentaries, more outrageous conspiracies than the death of Princess Diana, and countless pretenders to the throne in relentless pursuit of striking Lee gold, or at the very least, least gold paint.
Ramon Zamora was in an ideal position to capitalize on Bruce’s departure, having been pre-branded. Celso Ad. Castillo cast Zamora in the title role of Ang Mahiwagang Daigdig ni Pedro Penduko/The Mystical World of Pedro Penduko (1973), a popular komik franchise already filmed by Gerry de Leon in the ’50s, with Zamora as the awkward dreamer thrust into a world of mermaids and dragons before getting to strut his martial arts prowess in a beautifully filmed finale against a Pirate Captain (Eddie Garcia). Pedro Penduko was Topaz Films’ entry in the 1973 Manila Film Festival, and proved one of the top box-office draws of the year. Zamora was quick to reinvent himself as the Pinoy Bruce Lee albeit with a comic edge and star in a string of local martial arts actioners in quick succession (Shadow of the Dragon, Cobra at Lawin). In The Game of Death! (1974) Zamora and comedian Panchito are undercover agents infiltrating the island castle of a crazed, bewigged Colonel (Eddie Garcia) and his kung-fu tournament, which can only end in one way the death of all its contestants! Neat Bruceploitation cribs ideas from Enter the Dragon and even the title of Bruce’s unfinished opus; Miss Philippines ’73, Evangeline Pascual, and beauty queen Edna Diaz provide the glamour in slave girl gowns, with Rocco Montalban, Ernie Ortega, and For Y‘ur Height Only’s Eddie Nicart, Max Alvarado and Ruben Ramos.
But it was a second collaboration with Castillo 1974’s Return of the Dragon which would cement his reputation as a true Pinoy star. There followed more serious and not-so-serious kung-fu films with Dragon in the title, The Game of Death! goes as far to list Zamora as "Philippines’s Bruce Lee" in its export credits. In future Cleopatra Wong/One - Armed Executioner director Bobby A. Suarez’s production They Call Me Chop Suey (1975), Ramon Zamora plays a hopeless Chinoy (half Chinese, half Filipino) kitchen hand haunted by the spirit of his hero Bruce Lee. He travels to his Aunty Ming’s restaurant in Manila where the secret magical ingredient in his chop-suey ignites a restaurant war with local gangsters and Aunty’s rival, Mr Tan. Director Jun Gallardo cuts frequently between Zamora’s "Pinoy Bruce Lee" persona and his goofy shtick, distinctly Asian in its silliness and somewhat alien, no doubt, to a Western audience, for whom the kung-fool of Jackie Chan were still a number of years away. Chop - Suey sold well in Europe, nevertheless, as did the similar knockabout comedies of Terence Hill and Bud Spencer (Bobby’s title is a direct nod to their Trinity films), and despite its attempts to cover many bases at once, it’s an enjoyable if somewhat confused and occasionally jarring romp through Bruceploitation territory.
Back in 1973, the poster for Ramon Zamora’s The Radical Boxer Challenges The Big Boss also promised to unveil the "Chen Xing of the Philippines" stuntman/actor Mandy Bustamante and its "Meng Fei," played by a new talent named Rey Malonzo. More than ten years his junior, Malonzo was a serious martial artist as well as a reasonable comic, and quickly established himself as a serious contender in a number of features with and without Zamora: Chaku Master (1974) and The Golden Chaku (1977) with Zamora. Ironically, Rey would replace Ramon Zamora as the Bruce Lee of the Philippines within several years, and if you go by titles alone, in They Call Him Bruce Lee (1979) for Kinavesa, Malonzo’s transformation into the Bruce Lee of the Philippines is complete. In export versions of his films Malonzo is occasionally credited as "Bruce Ly" an appropriate name, considering the volume of lies and misinformation in the Bruceploitation cycle.
A neglected name in the "Bruce Lee of the Philippines" list is Malonzo’s co-star in Shaolin Master (1976), Trovador Ramos. Although there was no Bruce, Lee, or any of Lee’s infinite variations in his moniker, Ramos held an ace up his red belt robe’s sleeve: He was the only man, so his publicity read, to ever beat Bruce in a fight. The story goes like this. Ramos was in Hong Kong playing bit parts in kung-fu films. Bruce visited the gym and challenged the gathering to a spar; no one dared, except Trovador, who felt he was representing the Philippines’s collective honor. In the words of Trovador’s martial arts organization TRACMA, "Master Trovador delightfully vacant all with his systematic as good as undiluted timing, thwarting with box as good as beauty of Mr. Lee’s all out efforts of conflict with lightning speed as good as lively which resulted in vainglory." Precisely. Master Trovador returned to the Philippines victorious, and was introduced to local audiences in Red Belt Masters (1974) opposite Rommel Valdez before clearing out a small corner for himself in the Pinoy action film industry, all the while trumpeting his win over the real Master. Now that‘s Bruceploitation!
If we’re talking kung-fu comedies, let’s not forget another early Bobby A. Suarez production, The Bionic Boy (1977). In a plot aimed squarely at seven year olds of all ages, Singaporean Sonny Lee lands in Manila for a martial arts contest along with his parents; his father Johnson is posing as a solicitor, but Mafia thugs led by Frank, a Vegas greaseball who’s constantly yelling at his chain-smoking cohorts, calling them "meatheads" and "idiots" recognize him as one of Asia’s top Interpol agents. Frank orders his Filipino thugs to crush the Lee’s car with a pair of earthmovers. Both pants are pancakes, but Sonny miraculously survives legless and with empty sleeves, most of his organs turned into pate, his ears shot to hell and his left eyeball gone. Johnson’s millionaire friend Ramirez pays the world’s experts in bionics to reconstruct Sonny into a "trionic" machine that’s beyond mere bionics complete with supersonic hearing and a zoom lens in his left eye. His new trionic powers not only improve his kung-fu, but see him running like a miniature racehorse in slow motion, of course, with a rather shrill, insipid sound effect that comes nowhere near the majesty of Steve Austin’s "da-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na!" He finally sets out to avenge his parents and allows himself to be captured and taken to the baddies’ island lair, and even when chained and drowned in quick-drying cement, still kicks a sizable number of thugs to death with a smug smile and doesn’t bat an eyelid. His reasoning? With a voice that sounds like an anxious schoolgirl, he tells us: "It was kill or be killed."
Nino Muhlach: The "Ninofication" of Kung-fu
The market on kid-fu was cornered even earlier by cherubic child star Nino Muhlach. Success for young Nino was in his genes, as the Muchlach clan was tantamount to film royalty Auntie Amalia Fuentes (The Blood Drinkers  and Curse of the Vampires ) being forever remembered as the "Elizabeth Taylor of the Philippines." From age three into his early teens, the gimmick of a cute, chubby, precocious little tyke going heel-to-toe with the country’s biggest action stars FPJ, Joseph Estrada, cowboy star Jun Aristorenas, Bembol Roco and Rudy Fernandez all played second-fiddle, surrogate father roles to precocious, scene-humping Nino never seemed to lose steam, and sentimental audiences constantly warmed to his moon face and plump thighs, so that one of his 1977 films would out-gross the original Star Wars. Nino’s father Alexander Muhlach formed D’Wonder Films to capitalize on Nino’s early success, thus becoming one of the most powerful independent producers of the day.
Amongst D’Wonder’s greatest successes were Nino’s pairings with the Pinoy Bruce Lees, an idiosyncratic mini-cycle of kung-fu comedies released just as Jackie Chan was kicking the comic kung-fu into vogue. Nino, in fact, can be considered the forerunner of Weng Weng a kiddie-friendly, karate-kicking, pint-sized pre-Weng, born with an innate awareness of what makes his audience go "Awwwww!" His first vehicle with Ramon Zamora was Peter Pan De Sal (1976), in which Nino’s pan-de-sal (sweetened bread roll) salesman Pete and Ramon Zamora’s ex-con Peter, known amongst the criminal fraternities as Goldfinger, stumble on a chop-chop shop in the middle of the jungle, and discover stealing cars is just the tip of the syndicate’s activities. Young Pete is visited by a Fairy Godmother and given a magical stone known as an anting-anting that, once swallowed, gives him superhuman strength, and both his powers and Peter’s kung-fu to take on the local Godfather (Max Alvarado as Don Max doing a great mumbling Marlon Brando). A similar storyline is used in Ang Agimat Ni Pepe/The Magic Charm of Pepe (1979) with Rey Malonzo; Nino is an orphaned sakristan in Panchito’s church, befriended by poor farmer Chino (Malonzo) and mother figure Lourdes (Chanda Romero). When the local hacienda owner Don Modesto (Jose Garcia) demands his land, believing it contains a huge cache of hidden gold, a mystic beggar steps in with a magic charm for Pepe, and the kid takes on Modesto’s cheerful chucklehead goons, the mysterious Chinese figure Mr. Sho (Tsing Tong Tsai), and his army of Shaolin Bronzemen warriors.
By the time of Bruce Liit/Little Bruce (1978), the first cavalcade of Pinoy Bruce Lees, Nino has begun to collect martial art stars like postage stamps. Nino, his mother and father Ramon Zamora are a simple fisherman’s family in a village under attack from greedy Caucasian landlord Barrion in an attempt to control the fishing trade. His thugs kill Bruce’s mother and leave Zamora for dead, sending Bruce into hiding to be coached in martial arts by a white-haired kung-fu master in his mountain retreat. A Chinese student (Rey Malonzo) comes looking for the Master, and instead helps reunite Bruce with his father, and all three Bruce now a shaven-headed kung-fu dynamo in natty yellow robes over his little pot belly take their revenge on Barrion. Nino’s kung-fu training and combat scenes are surprisingly effective, and shot more imaginatively than many Hong Kong films of the period. The same can be said for Cuatro Y Media/Four And A Half (1981), a film which collects together Ramon Zamora, second-shelf Lee-alike Robert Lee, former Mr. Philippines bodybuilder and martial arts champion Roland Dantes, and Ulysses Tzan, the "Jackie Chan of the Philippines" more on him later as four pitiful handicapped fighters, and Nino as Pedro Bravo, a kid whose family is murdered in front of him. On finding a magic egg deposited by a lizard, Pedro gains powers like turning into a tree trunk, and sets up house with the blind, deaf, lame and terminally shy beggars and, in a Zorro mask, sets about restoring their self-confidence by training them up to become a fighting group one amputee short of the Five Venoms. Perhaps more than any other Nino Muhlach film, Cuatro Y Media demonstrates his secret of his success: playing King Shit to adult superstars who are nothing more than his human-sized ragdolls, and if you sniff out a good idea in someone else’s film, steal it, shrink it and Ninofy the fuck out of it.
Cuatro Y Media’s Ulysses Tzan managed to strike a minor chord amongst Jackie Chan-obsessed cinemagoers in the late ’70s. He was a decent martial artist with reasonable comic chops, a hair helmet Jackie would kill for, and a high-profile role in Dolphy’s surprisingly straight Superhand: Shadow of The Dancing Master (1980) as well as several other starring and supporting roles. For my money, however, "Jackie" Tzan’s lasting monument is Mantis Boxer (1979), a practically scene-for-scene redux of Jackie Chan’s original Drunken Master! He’s a young man named Trigo, Treeeego or Drago, depending upon the dubbed voice on the soundtrack, taken in by a white-haired Master and educated in the noble art of chugging wine while fighting blind. The Drunken Master clichés are all intact and replicated here the training sequences, in which Master makes Trigo do push-ups balancing on bottles before riding him like a goat, the jarring crash zooms, the restaurant scene where Jackie/Ulysses first uses his new skills (in Mantis Boxer, to a track from Jean Michel Jarre’s "Oxygene"), plus a dwarf waiter, cartoon villains (For Y‘ur Height Only’s Ruben Ramos and others) handing out reefers like lollipops, and a fifteen minute finale using sped-up footage set to a rat-assed synth score. All worthy moments, of course, but best of all is a shot of Ulysses flexing his muscles, accompanied by the sound of someone blowing directly into the microphone.
Dolphy Part Two: D’wild Wild Weng
Somewhere amidst the mountain of Dolphy roles the blind taho (a type of pudding) salesman-turned-samurai in Taho - Ichi (1976), father figures in The Good Father (1975) and Kisame Street (1976), and several roles in Omeng Satanasia (1977) including Satan himself Dolphy played Johnny Carson to a two-foot-nine Ed McMahon. Weng Weng’s producer Peter Caballes and director Luis San Juan brought Weng Weng to Dolphy who, at the time, was making a string of kung-fu-themed comedies: Dancing Master (1979) and Dancing Master 2 (1981), and the related Superhand: Shadow Of The Dancing Master (1980) with Ulysses Tzan, were his musical riffs on Jackie Chan’s phenomenally successful Drunken Master (1978), itself the reason for the popularity of comic martial arts films. Dolphy‘s Angels (1980) was a chopsocky Charlie‘s Angels updating the Dolphinger character and directed by kung-fu specialist Luis San Juan for Dolphy’s RVQ Productions, featuring Dolphy as a private investigator and introducing four models who, thanks to Dolphy, would become the most glamorous Filipina actresses of the early ’80s: Anna Marie Gutierrez (later the lead in Peque Gallaga’s groundbreaking porno Scorpio Nights), Carmi Martin, Yehlen Catral, and Liz Alindogan. Considering Peter Caballes was such good friends with Dolphy, it is little wonder the first three ended up in guest roles in For Y‘ur Height Only the following year; Caballes also poached composer Pablo Vergara, whose idiosyncratic, proto-Bondian score for Dolphy‘s Angels is almost identical to his soundtrack to For Y‘ur Height Only. Classic bad guy Max Alvarado (FYHO’s villain Jack in the tartan suit) also makes a guest appearance in a bright yellow fright wig as "Bertong Maize."
The Quick Brown Fox (1980) was Weng Weng’s first Dolphy film, playing a miniature sidekick to another version of Dolphinger. Posing as a wily thief, Dolphy is employed by Carmi Martin (who’s also, unbeknownst to him, a secret agent) to steal from classic contrabida Paquito Diaz. Dolphy’s partner is his on-screen wife from his long-running John And Marsha series, Nida Blanca; Weng Weng looks more baby-faced than ever, and without a screen persona as such, he’s a little awkward during his squeaky dialogue (all in Tagalog, of course, with no subtitles). Paquito’s goons corner Weng at Dolphy’s pad and he fights back like a little kung-fu dynamo, grabbing one by the arm and swinging backwards to kick him in the head!
In Stariray, released in February 1981, Dolphy reworks his iconic cross-dressing Pacifica Falayfay into "Serafica Parakikay," a sad Cinderella home cooking and cleaning for his three crooked Ugly Brothers (noted goons Paquito Diaz, Rodolfo "Boy" Garcia and Rod Navarro), dreaming of being a glamorous singer the opening song-and-dance number through a fish market, ripping off both "Can’t Stop The Music" and the theme to The Twilight Zone, is superb and despite the fact he’s gay, mooning over fashion model and undercover agent Stella (Carmi Martin). Unbeknownst to Serafica and their ailing mother (Marissa Delgado), the brothers run with a crime syndicate known as the Gagambas ("Spiders"), a group specializing in hypnotizing and swindling tourists, and led by the very ahem seductive "Mother." After the Gagambas’ crime spree includes the brothers robbing their own mother’s coffin, Serafica is drafted by Police Chief (Dolphy’s right-hand comic Panchito) to help defeat the gang and his dastardly brothers, and trained in kung-fu by Panchito’s diminutive Strategic Planner (a gruff-voiced Weng Weng), or as much as his flounciness will allow him. There’s more romance in the shape of Mother’s moll (Anna Marie Gutierrez) and a macho dancer (Dolphy’s son Edgar Quizon), and they join Serafica and Stella in a hilarious all-out assault on the Gagambas’s lair. Other than the five-minute training montage, Weng Weng has little else to do than turn up at the end, yell "Take charge!" at Panchito in a deep baritone voice, salute, then march between Rod Navarro’s legs.
The third, final and most significant of Weng Weng’s collaborations with Dolphy is Da Best In Da West from 1981, an elaborate two-hour spoof of Pinoy westerns, and a self-parody vehicle for Lito Lapid, nephew of ’60s cowboy superstar Jess Lapid Senior, who from 1979 would win the battle between him and Jess Senior’s son Jess Lapid Jr. over the crown of the Philippines’s newest generation of gunslingers. Lito as bounty hunter Dalton saves travelling salesman Wild Bill Hika, played by Dolphy with his customary hangdog expression, droopy shoulders and pot belly hanging off his spindly frame, from a gang of thugs led by Steve Alcarado. They head into the Branco Tango area (actually the hills of Baguio, a six-hour drive north of Manila) where the town’s mayor is on the payroll of dastardly wheelchair-bound land baron Don Oligareon (Tony Carreon) and his violent, lecherous son Facundo (a role played to the hilt by arch-baddy Romy Diaz) who has his eye on Estralita (Nina Sara), leader of the local workers. If all three faces look familiar, they are Romy and Tony play the two villains in Weng Weng’s subsequent adventure The Impossible Kid (1982), in which Nina appears as a bar girl. Dolphy heads straight to the local watering hole, where he spies the gorgeous Jane (Yehlen Catral) dancing to a disco version of "She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain" with a male cowboy equivalent of the Hot Gossip dancers. Things heat up when one of the saloon monkeys obviously succumbing to the water in the beer gets a little excited and the town’s sheriff is shot during the scuffle. Dolphy inadvertently shoots the assassin, and is proclaimed hero and sheriff all in one foul swoop. The reluctant hero sets out to clean up the town, and ropes in the local little person Bronson (nice touch) to be his deputy. To be honest, Weng has little to do in Da Best... other than provide a bizarre novelty backdrop, wear garish black-and-white cowboy outfits and gesture excitedly during the fight scenes. At one point you hear his real voice as expected, child-like and even higher pitched than his vocal double in For Y‘ur Height Only (1981).
Like clockwork, the notorious Tango Brothers (Max Alvarado, Rodolfo "Boy" Garcia and Max Vera as Tito, Vic and Joey) show up to drive Dolphy out of town, but it’s a hidden Dalton who saves the town. But then the next wave of goons under Paquito Diaz ride in, and Dolphy leaves in disgrace, is taught by crusty old Inkong Gaspar (Panchito) how to shoot and fight with a sword before leaving Inkong a broken man, and then decides to take on Don Oligareon and his goon armies in the finale’s regulation half-hour shootout. As with all low-brow populist comedies it’s a matter of taste you either buy into Dolphy’s shtick or reject it violently. Me, I’m a sucker for silliness, and this silly, all-star goonathon romps amiably through its two-hour running time. Weng Weng’s future director and instructor Eddie Nicart is stunt co-ordinator here for SOS Daredevils, and Peter Caballes is listed as an actor in the cast, as is For Y‘ur Height Only’s Yehlen Catral, Max Alvarado, Rodolfo "Boy" Garcia, and Weng Weng co-stars Romy Diaz and Tony Carreon (The Impossible Kid, D‘Wild Wild Weng), Nina Sara (TIK), Steve Alcarado (DWWW) the Weng connections are seemingly endless.
D‘Wild Wild Weng (1982), made barely 12 months later between the Agent 00 films, is a shameless plundering of the King of Comedy’s RVQ production courtesy of Peter and Cora Caballes’s rival Liliw Films International, and shares (exploits?) much of the cast from Weng Weng’s other movies. Yehlen Catral plays Elsa the barmaid, classic bad guy Romy Diaz is note-perfect with Mestizo superiority as the corrupt governor Sebastian, Max Alvarado takes a turn at playing a sympathetic non-Goon character as the mute Lupo, and Nina Sara is Weng’s love interest Clara. It’s certainly no coincidence that all four actors also worked on Da Best In Da West, and you can almost picture Caballes on the set of Da Best... with a huge butterfly net and box of pins.
D‘Wild Wild Weng is not strictly speaking an Agent 00 film, as Weng Weng trades in his characteristic white suit for a tiny waist coat and ruffled shirt (incognito, you understand). He is only ever referred to as "Mister Weng" or "Mr. Wang," depending on how hung over the guy in the dubbing booth was. He does, however, strip down to karate pants to do some suave martial art moves and, once the sight of Weng without a shirt becomes too much, dons the familiar white attire and blue paratrooper duds for target practice, just in case you’ve forgotten what he’s capable of.
Silhouetted against the opening Spaghetti Western credits and Pablo Vergara’s jaunty mariachi score, government agents "Mr. Weng" and his mountainous sidekick Gordon who, played by future Zuma star Max Laurel, is more than twice the size of Weng head to Santa Monica to investigate the slaying of the Mayor and his family. They find the Mayor’s caretaker Lupo has had his tongue cut out (Max Alvarado grunts and squeals and pulls faces, but under his Chinese villain moustache we can still see his tongue!) and the evil governor Senor Sebastian in control, along with the familiar faces of Eddie Nicart’s stunt team SOS Daredevils as Sebastian’s army of Goons, decked out in uniform sombreros and bullet belts. Villages are burnt, townsfolk are lynched, goats and chickens are confused. These are desperate times indeed.
Weng and Gordon rescue kindly villagers Mr Dencio and his daughter Clara, who warn them of Sebastian’s terrible ways. Later, sensing an opening, Weng tunelessly serenades Clara outside her window with Gordon on guitar and Lupo squealing harmonies; it’s a direct steal from Dolphy’s hopeless attempt at seduction in Da Best In Da West, in which Weng strums a guitar as big as he is. Less than a minute later they discover the family has been kidnapped by ninjas, no less and are tied to X-shaped crosses by Sebastian’s sidekick Ku Manchu (Ernie Ortega). Weng helps them escape, but is later captured himself, spread-eagled between four posts with his shirt more than a little ruffled.
As always, Weng’s stature is the main source of amusement from being carried around in a sack on Gordon’s back, to stealing bananas from under a table, to Gordon launching him like a coconut at Sebastian’s balcony. It’s as if a performing monkey had its cigar taken away and was cross-bred with Arnold from Diff‘rent Strokes, then dressed in a set of Tijuana pajamas. At one point Gordon rescues Weng from his cell by dressing as a monk, while Weng crawls under his cowl and clings fetal style to his belly, before hanging down like Max Laurel’s third leg. He then slides across the floor, in vintage 00 mode, through a goon’s legs and karate chops their hamstrings, and does a bionic leap from a sixth-story church tower into Gordon’s waiting jeep. In a word: Weng Gold.
Of course, there are very few gadgets in the Wild West other than a gatling gun, even bigger than Weng Weng, mounted on the back of a jeep for the big finale. And what an ending: Weng, Gordon and Lupo face off against a veritable army of Goons.
Weng: Where’s Clara?
Gordon: Where’s Elsa?
Lupo: Blah blah blah blah? Huh?
On the signal, Weng cranks the rattling gatling’s handle as fast as his little arm can, mowing down wave after wave of "Mexicans" in slow motion (recalling the best moments of D‘Wild Bunch).
Stage left, a tribe of pygmy Indians you read correctly, dwarves in red face and war paint launch a counterattack with bows and arrows amidst a sea of explosions. Oh, and let’s not forget the ninjas. It’s one of the most insane Filipino B-endings, a micro-Apocalypse Now and a Dadaist triumph for Nicart’s merry band of pranksters.
The Agent 00 films were sold all over the world, but I don’t recall an English-dubbed dwarf western ever making it past Manila Customs. As with its follow-up The Impossible Kid, Weng Weng has the same literal, uninspired and relatively humorless dialogue delivered in a breathy baritone at complete odds with his real helium-huffing voice, which makes you yearn for the For Y‘ur Height Only crew to hijack the dubbing studio. And, like The Impossible Kid, it’s technically rough in places, and ultimately isn’t a patch on the original Agent 00 adventure. Nevertheless, D‘Wild Wild Weng does have its share of glorious Weng Weng moments, and the fiesta music (with just a hint of the theme from The Good the Bad and the Ugly) keeps things, like Max Laurel’s third leg, swinging away nicely.
To Be Continued in Part Two...
Back to Issue 17