The Wild East: When the Philippines Was American Cinema's Final Frontier

ILLUSTRATOR Jasrelle Serrano

They Call Him Chop Suey. They Call Her Cleopatra Wong. They also called them cheap trash. Low-quality American-produced ‘70s movies for kids to make out to in drive-ins and small town cinemas. But they were also some of the most fun films ever to come out of the Philippines. Not that any American teen could’ve cared any less where the movies were filmed as long they had the three Bs in them.

Among foreign films shot in the Philippines, Apocalypse Now is, of course, the most highly acclaimed. Born on the Fourth of July, starring Tom Cruise, is a contender. Most, however, didn’t have notable actors or directors attached to them. (Unless you count Chuck Norris, or cult B movie directors like Roger Corman.)

The trailer's first few seconds are somewhat NSFW.

It was cheap labor, access to film crews and equipment and, in Francis Ford Coppola’s case, helicopters and pilots courtesy of President Ferdinand Marcos, which led low-budget movie producers to come here. The fact that American filmmakers weren’t welcome in post-war Vietnam didn't hurt either.

Standing in for other tropical locations, the filmmakers would often, whether by design or not, obscure their actual settings. The jungles of Quezon province and beaches of Baler became the homes of crazed American doctors, the Viet Cong, even Satan himself. Filipino henchmen’s voices were dubbed to sound stereotypically Chinese, female Filipino prison guards were the “best gunslingers south of Pango Pango,” and black pirates attacked remote Philippine islands. Sometimes, Filipinos remained behind the camera, directing American actors.

Another slightly NSFW trailer.

Among the best, or most exploitative if you will, are the ‘women in prison’ films, like Black Mama, White Mama; Savage Sisters; and The Big Dollhouse, featuring Pam Grier. Before her star-making turn in 1973’s Coffy, and decades before her role in Quentin Tarantino’s Jacky Brown, Grier had acted in a number of exploitation films shot in the Philippines. Eddie Romero directed her in The Twilight People as Ayesha, the Panther Woman, and in Black Mama, where she escapes an abusive warden while chained to a white prisoner. It's basically the plot of Sidney Poitier’s Defiant Ones, but with bosomy broads cat-fighting their way through the jungle as they flee Eddie Garcia’s corrupt cop.

At a time when African American actors were relegated to bit parts in Hollywood, Blaxploitation films gave these actresses a chance to play starring roles, even if they had to endure difficult conditions and degrading roles. The filmmakers also enlisted Filipino actors as leading men. In They Call Him Chop Suey, Ramon Zamora's daydreaming Bruce Lee lookalike karate chops and nun chucks his way through a series of foreign baddies and even gets to kiss the hot American girl. In The One Armed Executioner, Franco Guerrero's Interpol agent seeks revenge for the murder of his beautiful blonde wife by airdropping grenades from a helicopter on machine gun-wielding bad guys in bell-bottoms. 

The Philippine flora also attracted crazy scientists turned monsters, mythical beasts and undead martial arts masters. Some B-movies, like the fantastic Raw Force, even manage to combine the three Bs: beautiful women under duress, bloodied American heroes and brutal zombie ninjas, all on an uncharted warrior island.

The capital played a part in the exploitation films, too. Away from the oppressive jungle heat, Manila served as the backdrop to a number of spy films, often dressed up as Singapore or another Chinese metropolis. Many of them are pretty forgettable, with wooden acting made worse by terrible dubbing, but there are redemptive gems like the chase scene in Cover Girl Models which once and for all settles the question who would win a race between a kalesa and a tricycle. (Skip to 1:25 for the actual chase.)

The Philippines even had its own pint-sized superspy who briefly shot to global fame. Weng Weng, the 2 foot 9 inch-tall actor and martial arts enthusiast who starred in For Y’ur Height Only, remains the shortest actor in a lead role until this day. (In case you’re wondering, Peter Dinklage is 4 foot and 5 inches tall.)

Unfortunately, after a series of failed spy sequels and serious health problems, Weng Weng drifted back into obscurity. He died of a heart attack in 1992, poor and largely forgotten at the time, a fate he shared with many of the exploitation films shot in the Philippines. But like the films, Weng Weng should be remembered for his legendary gun-slinging, womanizing starring role. As Agent 00 himself said, ‘Shall we get it on?’

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