(Article originally published in British magazine FIRECRACKER, August 2007) I still remember watching my first exploitation classic from the Philippines, the midget James Bond spoof For Your 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 boater, 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), all with an armful of miniature gadgets and his signature move of punching someone in the balls, then running between their legs.
I still remember watching my first exploitation classic from the Philippines, the midget James Bond spoof For Your 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 boater, 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), all with an armful of miniature gadgets and his signature move of punching someone in the balls, then running between their legs.
It’s not just the novelty of seeing a Filipino midget 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 Seventies twilight of bad disco, Marlborough Man mustaches, 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. It should add up, but doesn’t. Whatever the reasons, the Philippines B-film is as addictive as their local crack “shiboo” and the hit lasts a lifetime.
Describing the manic Metro Manila experience in words is impossible: it’s like fourteen flattened cities hastily tacked together, with the clogged arterial traffic on the EDSA highway running down the middle. The city itself is a reflection of its colonial past - four hundred years of Spanish rule is there in the ruined city walls of Intramuros, and in its beautiful immaculately-kept cathedrals. Then there’s the American influence, first as colonial masters, then as a military omnipresence, everywhere you look: Western pop culture rules supreme. Someone once said the Philippines has been owned by Hollywood for the last fifty years, and they’re probably spot-on.
The American film invasion had its tentative start in the mid Fifties using the Filipino countryside for the exotic locales, cheap labour and even cheaper accommodation, all heavily subsidized by an enterprising, self-aggrandizing government. Prolific cineastes Geraldo de Leon and his younger protoge Eddie Romero, renowned for their artistic and commercial successes for the domestic market, were amongst the first local filmmakers to test the seemingly insatiable US drive-in market, starting with Terror Is A Man/Bood Creature (1959), an incredibly atmospheric and beautifully photographed b&w variation of Island Of Dr Moreau. Romero sold the film to the American drive-in market via American businessman Kane W. Lynn, and the two formed a partnership, Hemisphere Pictures, producing low-budget war films and actioners for the lucrative international market, with de Leon often on board.
Hemisphere’s greatest successes were the so-called “Blood Island” films: Brides Of Blood (1968), Mad Doctor Of Blood Island (1969) and its semi-sequel Beast Of Blood (1971), a trio of gore-soaked canvases dotted with palm trees and jungle-bound sleaze, all starring former AIP drive-in star John Ashley and a variety of oozing ghouls. Gerry de Leon made two solo pictures for Hemisphere, the bona fide vampire classics The Blood Drinkers (1966) and Curse Of The Vampires (1970) featuring a crazed mix of Hammer horror motifs and the Philippines’ uniquely histronic brand of Catholicism. Romero later teamed up with Ashley and the king of the US drive-in market, Roger Corman, to mastermind the werewolf film Beast Of The Yellow Night (1970), prime drive-in nonsense Beyond Atlantis (1973), Savage Sisters (1974), The Woman Hunt (1975), and the Pam Grier starrers The Big Doll House (1971), Black Mama White Mama/Women In Chains (1972) and The Twilight People (1973).
This deluge of horrors, ridiculous science fiction and women-in-prison features ushered in the country’s Golden Age of Exploitation, and as the horror boom waned, the kung fu craze kicked in with a vengeance. Meanwhile, both de Leon and Romero had turned their backs on the export market they had virtually created for Filipino B-films, and from 1975 onwards made smaller, more personal “art” films in the local dialect Tagalog. Filling their admittedly large shoes was Cirio H. Santiago, producer on many of their B-grade adventures and a driving force behind the family-owned Premiere Productions (one of the Big Four studios of the Fifties and Sixties), an artist who was clearly frustrated with the limitations of the domestic market, and who always had one eye on the rest of the world.
In the late Sixties, Santiago cemented a lifetime partnership with Roger Corman, and through his films as producer and director for Corman’s B-film distribution companies, you can almost chart the last thirty years of exploitation: the women in prison genre (Caged Fury), blaxploitation (TNT Jackson), Chuck Norris-era white martial arts actioners (Firecracker, Angel Fist), Mad Max and Platoon rip-offs, and endless (not to mention ludicrous) variations on the kung fu formulae. It was only the meteoric rise of American cable productions in the mid-Nineties that saw foreign productions in the Philippines, as well as Santiago’s sausage-factory production line for Corman, almost grind to a halt.
Naturally, a low-budget shoot for Corman sometimes means ten, maybe seven days shooting two or three films back to back with next to no money. Nevertheless, Henry Strzalkowski, Santiago’s actor, assistant director and uncredited dogsbody for much of the Eighties and early Nineties, remembers Cirio - known as The General - commanding such incredible loyalty on set. “At the end of one day, I went up to Cirio and said, ‘One hundred set ups today.’ Which is outrageous, and almost unheard of! He gave me a slight smile and said quietly, ‘That’s good.’”
When I later drop by Premiere’s hi-rise office, Cirio H. Santiago is busy finalizing a deal with the low-budget division of Sony Pictures. He’s slated to produce or direct four films over the next 2 years with Roger Corman as Executive Producer. There’s electricity in the air, as if the General is about to go into battle once again. [Since writing the article, Sniper 4 and 5 have been put on the backburner; however there is talk recently about dusting off Stryker 2...]
The Philippines’ first entirely home-grown international success, however, was a tiny Hispanic human tornado called Bobby A. Suarez. From his first-story office in Plaza Santa Cruz, across the road from a magnificently imposing Spanish church from the 18th Century, everything about Bobby’s corner of Manila seems out of time, and stepping through his wooden door with a bronze “BAS Film” plaque on it reveals a place frozen forever in the Seventies.
Based in Hong Kong in the early Seventies, Bobby cut his teeth on the lucrative kung fu market before returning to the Philippines for BAS Films’ debut The Bionic Boy (1977), an enjoyably derivative kiddie’s spoof of The Six Million Dollar Man starring an 8 year old Singapore black belt Johnson Yap, followed by Cleopatra Wong (1977), a deranged mix of James Bond, Bruce Lee and Cleopatra Jones starring Singapore beauty Marrie Lee, shot in three Asian countries for less than US $80,000. In true exploitation style, he matched up his first two successes in a third feature, Dynamite Johnson (1978), in which Cleo Wong happens to be the Bionic Boy’s auntie!
From the outset, Bobby’s films were always destined for the international market. Instead of the well-worn, small minded route of making films in Tagalog, recouping their relatively meager budgets in Manila and scraping the cream off the top in the provinces, Bobby could picture his movies on cinema screens and in video stores the world over. And they were: films like The One-Armed Executioner (1983) and post-apocalypse actioner Searchers Of The Voodoo Mountain (1985) circled the globe, from the Middle East to Mexico and beyond. Just how he could dream up his ridiculously ambitious projects with such ragtag resources is truly the Filipino guerrilla film experience, and is Bobby’s art.
Apocalypse Now was a watershed film for the Filipino film industry. Almost every able-bodied Filipino film jockey got to train on Coppola’s monolithic Hollywood set, and were paid handsomely for the privilege. Eddie Romero was line producer for Coppola on the Apocalypse Now shoot: “Medical students couldn’t dissect a corpse in Manila from 1976 to 1977. They were hanging from trees, over fences... I told him, ‘Mr Coppola, we have access to the finest special effects guys in the Philippines. We can MAKE you corpses!’ He wanted real bodies.”
The big Hollywood productions continued to roll through - Boys In Company C, Hamburger Hill, Platoon, Born On The Fourth Of July - and in their wake came a rash of similarly themed (read: carbon copied) WW2 or Vietnam War actioners. The early Eighties saw the VHS explosion (the Second Revolution, after the drive-in explosion of the Sixties), and enterprising local operators like Cinex made a killing in the direct to video market, with my favourite gay biker post-apocalypse (“gaypocalypse”?) film W Is War (1984), plus the greatest ever Catholic gore flick The Killing Of Satan (1983), in which a Christ substitute goes stick-to-horns with the red-suited one himself.
Even lower-rent outfits like Kinavesa (known outside the Philippines as Silver Star) are still operating out of the pokey poster-lined office in Manila’s Chinatown, not five minutes walk from BAS Films, foisting their Eighties back-catalogue on unsuspecting overseas DVD labels. Filipino-born Chinese businessman-turned-producer K.Y. or “Kimmy” Lim could bring in a full jungle action film shot on 35mm for less than US$20,000 by paying expatriate Americans little more than beer money and making every poorly-timed explosion count. With occasional appearances by former peplum and spaghetti western star Richard Harrison, their ultra-low budget earnestness makes them a favourite among bad kung fu and action film fanatics.
Antonio Margheriti started the Italian invasion with his Deer Hunter/Apocalypse Now reworking The Last Hunter (1980) and before long had based himself almost exclusively in the Philippines for the rest of the Eighties. Other Euro filmmakers were soon in on the action, like Swiss producer Erwin C. Dietrich (Escape From Blood Plantation), and Zombie Creeping Flesh director Bruno Mattei with his regular assistant Claudio Fragasso (Strike Commando, Zombie 3), all shooting cheap thrills masquerading as exotic genre pictures for the still-lucrative international video market. The Philippines countryside doubled as Vietnam, Korea, South America, Africa - chances are most cheap-assed bottom shelf dreck featuring a palm tree or VC were lensed within sniffing distance of Quezon City.
Amazingly, Bruno Mattei is back in the Philippines, and for the last four years has been shooting HD cannibal and zombie movies for the DVD market: the Third Revolution. Mattei, still flushed from a lucrative sale to Buena Vista for his Island Of The Living Dead, is at RS Video and Film Studios setting up a Part 2. Just when you thought there was nothing new to be wrung out of the genre, I walk into a row of ten dwarf extras auditioning for zombie babies (“zombinos”, Mattei quips) controlled by an evil zombie brain. [Sadly, Bruno passed away less than a week after I wrote this article]
Low to no-budget productions are everywhere in the Philippines at the moment, and could well be the saviour of the ailing film industry. During the hour-long taxi ride from Bruno’s shoot to Quezon City, I read Eddie Romero’s first ever digital feature has been released to megaplex theatres. Even old dogs - and he’s pushing his mid-eighties - can learn new tricks after all. Most shocking of all: it’s a teen soap opera.
At Manila’s Aquino International Airport, Bobby hands me the treatment for Vengeance Of Cleopatra Wong, the long-overdue sequel to his greatest Seventies success. “Let me know what you think,” he says, giving me instructions on how to find a financial backer. “You know, one day I’m going to make another horror film.”
“Oh,” I say, almost afraid to ask.
“Draculita. The GAY Dracula! Can you picture it?” His eyes twinkle. “What do you think?”
I study him for a moment. Twenty years of political correctness have left Bobby completely untouched. “You’re crazy,” I finally reply.
“You are a filmmaker, so YOU’re crazy!”
I laugh. “And the poster can say, ‘I want to suck your...’ “
Bobby laughs with me. “Ha! NOW you’re thinking like a Filipino filmmaker!”