His Name Was Ernesto dela Cruz / by Samuel B. Prime

His name was Ernesto dela Cruz, born September 7th, 1957. Thirty years later, I would be born on the same day. 

Ernesto measured just a few inches shy of three feet tall. He had always been small, but what he lacked in stature he made up for with sheer talent. He was a great, physical actor and a fearless (though equally foolish) stuntman. 

In his lifetime, Ernesto was better known by his onscreen pseudonym - given to pint-sized secret agents and diminutive cowboys in equal measure - as "Weng Weng." And he was a star. More than that, he was the first international Filipino star. His films were among the most prolifically distributed and embraced outside of Manila. Films such as FOR Y'UR HEIGHT ONLY (1981) and THE IMPOSSIBLE KID (1982) were seen and marketed overseas as spoofy James Bond-style pictures with a youthful sensibility and a natural appeal to children and adults alike.

Ernesto's story is told with genuine curiosity and poetic sensitivity in a recent documentary by Andrew Leavold called THE SEARCH FOR WENG WENG. Leavold's film is one of those rare branches of the documentary form that can unpretentiously call itself "personal essay" as he as filmmaker is indivisible from the film and its subject. To shed light on the history of this mysterious Filipino action star became, he admits at the start, "a seven-year obsession." Leavold succeeds in finding out who Weng Weng was onscreen and off, the circumstances of his seemingly charmed life as a leading man, but inevitably learns that the story is tinged with extreme loneliness, mistreatment, abuse, embezzlement, and ultimately resultant in a sad, tragic end for a man once so beloved.

It was not that Weng Weng fell out of favor with the public or that he turned to drug and drink as he aged, but rather that at what seemed like the height of success (pun not intended) his producers and adoptive parents - Peter and Cora Caballes - abandoned him. The phone stopped ringing. Never allotted a proper salary for his acting roles and without the standard residuals, Weng Weng was left poor and without anything to call his own. The next years were marked by depression, disease, and finally death. Bedridden for years following an initial stroke that left half his body paralyzed, one day in 1992 he fell from his bed and was later pronounced dead as a result of cardiac arrest. He died alone, wedged between his bed and a dresser. When he was found the next day, he was stiff as a board and the ride to the hospital was just a formality. Weng Weng died alone and forgotten.

In its remembrance of Weng Weng, Leavold's essay film asks a profound question: "Was Weng Weng ever really happy?" He concludes that the answer is "yes." Despite the less than ideal circumstances of the productions, Weng Weng elevated himself in the course of his lifetime, was seen as a major star - even in Cannes! - and transcended his roots as one of five children born in a crowded hovel and forced to sleep on the dirt floor. He became something enviable, something great and memorable, and that version of Weng Weng - or Ernesto dela Cruz - is as alive as ever, captured on celluloid. Although he may now be gone and the nature of his death was certainly tragic, Ernesto is still able to entertain us and make us laugh. My friend-for-life Jamaa Fanaka (director of EMMA MAE and PENITENTIARY) - whose birthday was yesterday - would have called it: "secular immortality." Ernesto lives on in - and through - his films. His legacy is onscreen, where his prowess is on permanent display.

I first saw Leavold's film on December 21, 2014. When Ernesto's birth date was revealed, I was totally breathless. Why it startled me, I am not quite certain. We share a birthday. So what? It is not as if I knew or could have ever known Ernesto dela Cruz. The connection is superficial. No question about that. However, I knew in that moment that every September 7th from there forward would be not only a celebration of my own birth, but of Ernesto dela Cruz's memory. And on this day I salute the memory of this man, my brother in birthdays, Mr. Ernesto dela Cruz.

- Samuel B. Prime

Founder, LA Ciné Salon