Courtesy of Y.K. Kim
November 09, 2012 at 07:31 PM EST

This month, Drafthouse Films is rereleasing an obscure ’80s martial-arts action film called Miami Connection in the hope of turning it into a midnight-movie-style cult phenomenon. But when one of the film’s stars, a tae kwon do guru named Y.K. Kim, met Drafthouse Films creative director Evan Husney before a screening at the New York Asian Film Festival this past July, he seemed pessimistic about the film’s chances of success. Says Kim, “I asked him, first thing, ‘Why did you buy this trash?'”

Miami Connection has long been a source of shame for Kim, who — in addition to his acting duties — cowrote, codirected, produced, and financed the Orlando, Fla.-shot, 1987 film. This awkwardly scripted, amateurishly acted movie about a synth-rock band called Dragon Sound — whose members are black-belt martial artists and communally dwelling adult orphans — represents a rare but painful defeat for the martial arts expert, motivational speaker, and self-help author. “My students dedicated themselves to this movie so much,” says Kim. “The sheriff department, the University of Florida — they support me so well. I did not lift up the town. It’s terrible and terrible. That is what I have to pay back until I [die].”

Drafthouse Films would like to help Kim settle that debt in his own lifetime. The company, an offshoot of the Austin, Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse cinema chain, is positioning the film as one with appeal to cinemagoers who have turned the entertainingly woeful likes of Birdemic and Tommy Wiseau’s The Room into cult hits. “The success of The Room as a new, modern-day midnight movie is definitely one of the reasons why this film will have a bigger audience now,” says Husney. “But there are a lot of differences. Some people like to refer to films like The Room as ‘so-bad-it’s-awesome.’ I think Miami Connection fits the category of ‘so-good-it’s awesome.'”

Y.K. Kim was born in South Korea and moved to New York in 1976. “When I arrived here I did not have anything [except] my black belt,” says Kim, whose students refer to him as Grandmaster. “But I had hope. I had American dream. I wanted to promote martial arts. I taught a tae kwon do class in Manhattan, like nine months, then I left [for] Orlando.”

By the mid-’80s, Kim was overseeing a chain of tae kwon do studios and was invited back to his homeland of Korea to appear on a talk show. “I was on, like, on hour,” says Kim. “I put on very exciting exhibitions.” The Grandmaster’s TV appearance was exciting enough for a Korean action director named Woo-Sang Park to get in touch about a possible collaboration. “He asked me, ‘Would you like to make a movie based on martial arts spirit and your philosophy?'” recalls Kim, a trim sixtysomething given to apologizing for the deficiencies of his English. “I say, right away, ‘Yes!’ Bruce Lee has eastern culture and Chuck Norris has western culture. I wanted to combine [them and make] best ever martial arts movie. That is the reason I started.”

Kim was so excited to be working with Woo-Sang Park (whose credit on Miami Connection would be the filmmaker’s Western-ized nom de plume of “Richard Park”) he agreed to fund the budget, which ultimately ballooned to a near-bankruptcy-causing $1 million. He also decided to fill the cast with his students and signed on to produce the movie, despite knowing precious little about the film business — or, for that matter, films. “Maybe once a year I watched a movie,” he admits. “I was too busy.”

Courtesy of Y.K. Kim

Kim says the Miami Connection shoot was “a nightmare. I was in hell. To make movies, money flies so fast and it requires a lot of work. When I started I did over 10 people’s jobs. You name it: casting, cleaning up, hunting locations. We didn’t have a screenplay, anything. I did not know you are supposed to have a screenplay. So sometimes on the location we wrote dialog. I did not have any idea. It was so busy. Oh my god. Director Park, I respect him. But he doesn’t understand English! One [time], I couldn’t sleep for five days. All my friends, and community leaders, they came to me — ‘Hey, Y.K. Kim, you are martial arts expert, you are instructor, but you are not movie maker.’ They were right! But I couldn’t stop because I told all of my students, ‘I will show you this movie in the theater.'”

Kim, who plays Dragon Sound’s rhythm guitarist in the film, says that he tried to sell Miami Connection to more than 100 studios and distributors, without success. “I went to Twentieth Century, Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal, you name it,” he remembers. “Every single person say, ‘Hey, Y.K. Kim, this is trash, this is trash! Don’t waste your time!’ I don’t even know how many times this movie died. But I went too far, I couldn’t stop. No way! Whenever I wanted to stop I can see my students’ faces. That’s the martial arts spirit,” Kim continues, tears welling up in his eyes. “I had promised these students, you know.”

Unwilling to accept the judgment of movie execs in Hollywood, Kim screened Miami Connection at the Cannes Film Festival. But the film once again failed to impress. “I rented a theater and showed everybody, the worldwide guys and buyers. Every one, same thing: ‘Y.K. Kim? As quickly as possibly throw it away. You are losing too much money!'”

Many would have indeed cut their losses at this point. Kim decided to double down. With Woo-Sang Park having returned to Korea, Kim set about writing and directing new scenes, including a fresh ending. “I did not know how to direct a movie,” says Kim. “So, first I bought the book, How to Direct a Movie. And then I ask my student, Mr. Joseph Diamond, ‘Hey, please stop your work and come to my home.’ We rewrote.”

Alas, Kim’s student was no more versed in the screenwriting arts than his instructor. “I knew nothing about screenwriting,” says Diamond. “So I went out and bought books as well. We ran into each other at the book store! Basically, I said, ‘Well this is how screenplays are written in Hollywood — there’s a beginning, there’s a middle, and there’s got to be a happy ending.’ And that’s how it evolved.”

After shooting the new scenes, Kim once again tried to sell the movie in Hollywood — and once again failed. “They saw it already, so everybody rejected,” he says. Eventually, Kim decided to self-distribute the film to eight cinemas in Florida and embarked on an exhausting pre-release promotional campaign which found the martial instructor hyping his film to media outlets and making personal appearances in supermarkets, fast food joints, and nightclubs. “To open in theaters, you must have advertising, promotion,” says Kim. “[It costs a] lot of money. But, already, money, it dry out. So I used my body and my brain. I interviewed for major newspapers, TV, radio, even, like community newspapers. And then Walmart, Subway, all central Florida nightclubs. I would put up posters and sign everywhere I went.”

By the eve of the movie’s release Kim was “so excited, I know it will be blockbuster.” But the reviews were withering. The Miami Herald described it as “hopelessly bad,” while the Orlando Sentinel sarcastically praised the film for being in color. As for the folks who actually put down hard cash to see it, “some asked for money back for ‘that junk movie you showed,'” says Kim. “I let my students down. It was terrible.”

Next: “People went completely bananas.”

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