Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Tanduay Rum Diaries Part Two


…in which your humble narrator, and Dani Palisa, his tattooed Sancho Panza, are on a Search For Weng Weng shoot in Manila, only to discover Christ in his Second Coming is to take the shape of their former King of Action Movies

[Previously published on the Video Zoo blog, September 2011]

Andrew: It’s January 2008, on the fourth trip to Manila for the yet-to-be-finished Search For Weng Weng documentary, and I take the text message summons from former SOS Daredevil, Sixties and Seventies action movie goon and Weng Weng’s co-star Steve Alcarado. I’d stumbled upon Steve quite by accident on my first shoot in November 2006 while he was drinking coffee with his fellow out-of-work goons at Quezon City’s Tropical Hut. I got to know Steve quite well; he’s a wily goon who’s constantly pitching me projects. One of my proudest souvenirs from The Trenches is a hand-painted poster for “Tomorrow Is Another Day” along with a two-page synopsis which features, among other action essentials, ninjas, samurais, exploding speedboats, and the Pinoy James Bond himself, Tony Ferrer, in the starring role of the debut from “Leavold Productions”. Ferrer is now well into his Seventies and has managed to elude my barrage of requests to interview him. And I’ve been persistent. After all, he did play Weng Weng’s boss in For Your Height Only, and his Agent Falcon’s trademark white suit had inspired Double O’s similar if somewhat shrunken attire.

Steve had cordially invited Dani and I to a company shindig, with the promise of meeting Tony Ferrer as bait. At the time Steve was one of several former goons working as sales representatives for an earthmoving company in Quezon City, its office inside a walled compound on the busiest stretch of EDSA an empty Tanduay bottle’s throw from the GMA-7 TV building. Several of the old SOS guys had netted sales this month and are being honoured with an all-you-can-drink cocktail party and roast pig barbecue at company HQ. Dani and I figure Agent Falcon is unlikely to make an appearance, but with the prospect of swimming through free booze with the old stunt guys, the SOS Daredevil has made an indecent proposal which was impossible to refuse.

At the appointed I leave Dani and Big Jim Gaines, a six-four, half-African American veteran of action movies, to park Jim’s SUV, and meet Steve Alcarado (“I’m the Lee Van Cleef of the Philippines!” he told me at our first meeting, his eyes appropriately narrowed to slits) outside GMA. As we approach the eight foot gates to the Waco-style compound, Steve says to me, with all the sincerity he can muster: “My boss wants to give you a book to take back to Australia. It’s religious…” He draws a breath “… but not very.”

I say nothing, ignoring all manner of warning bells and whistles. At this point, the “booze and goons” mantra has completely taken over.

In the belly of the Beast
Steve and I exit EDSA and walk through an eight foot gate into a carpark the size of a baseball field. HQ is on the left, an enormous man-made lake has taken over most of the right hand side, and a bamboo hut on stilts is perched over the grey-green water.

Outside the CEO’s office, I sit on a couch and begin to leaf through the company’s magazine placed strategically on the coffee table in front of me. On the cover is the smiling countenance of the Philippines’ greatest ever goon, Fernando Poe Jr (or FPJ), surrounded by a snapshot halo of the thirteen Filipino presidents including the current Gloria Arroyo. Underneath are the ominous words: “Divine Government of God.”

To put FPJ in perspective: until his death in 2004 following a failed bid at the presidency, he represented to his generations of fans a bizarre, mythic amalgam of John Wayne and the Infant of Prague. Roles in over 250 action films from the mid 50s cast him as a stoic champion of the poor, the downtrodden, the forgotten Pinoy Everyman. Without exception he’s an honourable man pushed to the brink by cartoonish screen villains, usually played by Max Alvarado or Paquito Diaz and their armies of SOS Daredevil goons, until he snaps and dispenses righteous justice with both fists or his trademark .45s and Magnum .357s. More than a few of the Philippines’ millions of Catholics are no doubt still holding their collective breaths on the Vatican approving FPJ’s sainthood.

On Page Ten is a story on how the Pope is the Antichrist, how Arroyo is the Satanic Pope’s emissary in the Philippines, and how Poland is the centre of apostasy – why I couldn’t fathom, other than the previous pope was born there, the evil fucker. Central to this bizarre cosmography is the belief that Arroyo had stolen the president’s chair at Malacanang Palace from FPJ during the 2003 elections, a notion proving more believable with each passing year of Arroyo’s rotten, corrupt, stinking-of-traded-horsemeat presidency.

Dani: After dropping Andrew off, me and Jim cruise around the seedy backstreets surrounding EDSA before being given the all-clear to park within the compound itself. Greeted by a guard with a semi-automatic rifle and a grin full of jackal-like, albeit rotten teeth, we’re escorted in. This place immediately strikes me as strange. Looking at a man-made pontoon shack in the middle of a man-made lake at the centre, while within the shack, people ran around furiously preparing a pig on a spit.

Dai and Steve Alcarado
As we got out of the car, Steve Alcarado leans out of the glass monolith opposite the man-made lake/pontoon and beckons us over. “Andrew is inside.”

We are led up a giant staircase to a sweaty, wide-eyed Andrew, about four shades paler than usual. As Steve scuttles off and heads downstairs, myself and Big Jim corner the terrified looking Andrew and ask him what’s wrong.

In a hushed tone, he eyeballs us and whispers urgently, “We’re in a cult!”

Big Jim furrows his brow. “What in Hell are you talking about?”

…this was the last thing I was expecting…

Andrew: I spit out the next few words in a ludicrous stage whisper with all the gravity I could muster. “We’re in the First Church of FPJ!”

Jim looks a little concerned. “Oh wow,” he finally says. “Dude, do you want me to bust us out of here?”

“No!” I hiss. “Let’s see how weird this gets!”

Jim leads us past the earthmoving equipment parked in a Panzer formation and over the bamboo drawbridge into the party hut. “Ok man, but I got us covered, ok?”

He then spies FPJ’s half-brother Conrad Poe sitting on the deck with a table full of SOS Daredevils cronies. I remember Conrad from our interview the previous year – a thick silver-backed gorilla of a guy, he’d unsuccessfully made the transition from goon in FPJ’s films to leading man in his own right. Still, he has a powerful presence onscreen and off, an aura of power emanating from his position in FPJ’s filmic Royal Family.

“Hey, it’s cool! Conrad’s here!” Jim announces.  He then hisses to Conrad, “You’re not the High Priest of this goddamned cockamamie FPJ cult, are you?”

“Nah!” says Conrad, dismissing him with a wave over an enormous two litre flagon of brandy. “It’s just business. The CEO’s given me [an undisclosed amount of] pesos to use my name.” He takes a swig from a tall glass of neat brandy. “I’m using the money to finance my next film!”

Conrad then eyeballs me and recognizes me from the interview last visit. “I need a white face to play an American soldier during the American-Filipino war. You interested?”

“Sure!” I offer, hoping to see the colour of another plane fare.

“But first…” He takes another bolt of brandy. “…We go to my place on the coast. THREE DAYS DRINKING!”

Seriously, it would have been rude – nay, DANGEROUS – to refuse. At Conrad’s table the brandy flowed freely; inside the hut, the roast pig was in the process of having its face removed with a meat cleaver. It’s a not-subtle reminder of how difficult it is to remain vegetarian in the Philippines. I remember trying to explain my dietary limitations to a crestfallen host. “Sorry, I can’t eat beef. No chicken, no fish.” With doe eyes that looked ready to burst into tears at any moment, they asked, “Not even pork?”

Dani: The initial thought of being strung up in the middle of the First Church of FPJ starts to ease off as the brandy flagons are poured down my throat. I guess they dodn’t notice “Lamarcadeldiablo” plastered across my chest.. .the last thing you want people to notice at these kinds of shindigs.

Then the Speech starts, and all of a sudden I begin to get the same feeling of impending doom creep back up as the tiny moustached messiah speaks and Jim begins to translate his rantings, and the words on my t-shirt are the least of my worries…

Andrew: “The Speech” is a forty minute sermon mainly in Tagalog, but we do recognize the words “Antichrist” and “Poland”. Suddenly Dani feels marked by his t-shirt, his Polish lineage and his Catholicism. We turn towards the lake to stop smirking; every now and then Dani actually feels for his people: first the Germans had screwed them, then the Russians, and now the Filipino fundamentalists. The SOS guys are enthralled. Is the CEO a messiah figure to them, or merely the guy whose paychecks keep them dancing like poodles on a hotplate? I’ll probably never know. But their reverential silence only amplifies the sounds of grins cracking across our incredulous faces.

Eventually the sermon grinds to a halt. There’s rapturous applause, and the CEO beams beatifically at his payrolled flock. “And now…” he waves his arm past Dani and I, “karaoke!”

"And now...karaoke!"
As if by magic, two young hostesses appeared from a changing room at the back of the hut, grabbed the microphones, fired up their infernal music machine, and started cranking out 100% Hits circa 1985, one after the other. The hired Bikini Goons of the Manila Karaoke Mafia really seem to have caught the CEO’s full attention, as he sits glued to a plastic lawn chair in front of them and slaps his thigh in appreciation at the end of each warble.

Dani and I looked at each other with dinner plate eyes. “We’re drunk and we’re locked in a compound with religious lunatics,” Dani points out with remarkable calm. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

I read Dani’s mind loud and clear. “Let’s do it.”

As our tuneless whistling introduces Scorpions’ “Wind Of Change”, I jump on top of a plastic lawn chair, and Dani takes lead melody, long hair flying at tattoos on display. “Taaaaa-ake me, to the magic of the moment….” Power fists follow one another. “”…on a gloooo-ory night…” I venture a few windmills with my free arm and start my pelvis gyrating in the direction of the CEO seated less than three feet away. “….where the children of tomorrow dream away..” “Dream away!” “…on the Wind of Change..” “The fuckin’ Wind of Change!”

Brandy is a terrible drug, I should mention at this point, and karaoke etiquette deemed appropriate at RGs in the Valley on a Wednesday crawl may not pass muster at the First Church of FPJ. Shit. This could go horribly one way or the other. The CEO starts slapping his thigh again, and we’re not sure if this is a good thing, or if he’s allowing his circulation to improve before leading our death march up Calvary. Then as the tuneless whistling outro fades, a miracle happens: he screams “YES! There WILL be a wind of change!” He’s evidently decided we’re the two Albino Apostles who have blown off EDSA to carry the Word of FPJ back to the Antipodes. As the Bikini Mafia resume their Gloria Estefan quota, the CEO plies us with copies of his self published hardcover, The Sound Of The Seventh Trumpet. Having a quick flip past hand drawn pictures of Angels and the usual Book of Revelation stuff with his terrifyingly Pinoy slant, I fix him with a brandy clouded, pie-eyed stare. “We’ll take them,” I offer, “…but only if you autograph them.” “YES! YES!” He grabs a presentation pen. “To Andrew,” he scrawls, “GOD BLESS 1.25.08”.

Andrew with poster artist Manny
Dani: I feel left out, so I sheepishly ask if he’d sign mine also. “Of course!” he bellows, practically snatching the book out of my sweaty palms. “To…Dani…God Bless!” This was the seventh circle of weirdness, and we manage to escape unconverted, but more importantly, my Eastern Block ass didn’t get shot and left at the bottom of their man-made lake. The night gets lost in a Brandy fog, I’m sure there’s dancing and creative ways to avoid eating the pig I saw get its face chopped in half with a hatchet…all I remember is laughing our asses off all the way back to the relative safety of Metro Manila, signed propaganda in hand.

Andrew: Amen to that, Brother.

POSTSCRIPT: I learned several months too late that Conrad Poe passed away from a heart attack in mid-2010. We never did have that three day drinking session – and considering his heart condition it’s probably just as well – and his American-Filipino war film, with yours truly as White Goon #3, remains unmade.

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