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

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.”

In fairness to both the critics and cinemagoers of Florida, it is clear how one might mistake Miami Connection for just another subpar piece of ’80s chopsockey “trash.” From its ludicrous plot (the members of Dragon Sound battle both a rival band and a horde of ninjas) to its tin-eared dialog (at one point a character talks about “stupid cocaine”) the film’s amateurish streak is as wide as a politician’s smile. But the movie also boasts an endearing all-for-one-and-one-for-all-one sensibility that separates the film from, and arguably elevates it above, the common action-movie herd. “Most of the movies that were being made in that era were attempting to cash-in,” says Zach Carlson, a programmer at the Alamo Drafthouse. “There are uncountable Rambo knock-offs, there’s a million Road Warrior knock-offs. And all of them feel pretty crass in their attempt to turn a profit. But Y.K. Kim wasn’t aware of what was popular in movies. He just was so dedicated to his martial arts lifestyle. When he made that movie, it was coming completely from his mind and his very unique world and the sincerity of it is really what makes it count. It’s so beautifully innocent and it’s so pure. That is I think what always makes a movie a, quote unquote, cult classic.”

It is thanks to Carlson that Miami Connection is now getting a second chance in cinemas, a quarter of a century after its brief theatrical run. Forever on the hunt for unknown cinematic gems for the Drafthouse library, Carlson paid $50 for a 35 mm print of the film on eBay in 2009, despite the seller actually trying to dissuade him from purchasing the movie. “I wasn’t aware of the film and at the time there was very little information online anywhere because it kind of got strangled in its crib,” says Carlson. “When I contacted the seller he kind of tried to talk me out of buying it. He was like ‘Are you sure you want this? Do you know what this is? It’s not necessarily a movie that people are going to enjoy watching.’ I think he had heard from the guy that he’d gotten it from that it was kind of a dud. He was trying to do the honest thing and warn me that it wasn’t Hollywood’s finest. But it turned out to be better than that.”

In April 2010, Carlson screened the first reel of Miami Connection, sight unseen, at a Drafthouse event. “We have about 3,000 films [in the archive] and many of them have never been released on video,” says the programmer. “So to assess their value as entertainment we do this thing called a ‘Reel One’ party where we take the first 20 minute reel of four or five movies and we play them for a small audience, which come in for free. The audience’s reaction kind of dictates whether or not we program the entire film in our calendar down the line. So we watched like three other movies that didn’t really get much of a reaction and weren’t that fun and then we played the first 20 minutes of Miami Connection.”

And?

“People went completely bananas. Because in the first 20 minutes you’ve got fighting and you’ve got awkward dialog and you’ve got a Dragon Sound performance. You’ve got all this stuff that encapsulates the feel of the movie. Everybody was like, ‘When is that going to play?’ It was about two and a half months later that we actually got to program the film. It was this huge sold-out screening, just from people that had heard about that first reel.”

But when Husney first cold-called Kim’s office about the possibility of rereleasing the film through the Alamo Drafthouse’s new distribution and production arm, he got the brush-off. “They thought it was a prank call,” he says. “I was like, ‘I really love this movie, we want to release it.’ It was literally like, click.”

Kim says that he was extremely wary of revisiting what he describes as “the nightmare 25 years ago” but, intrigued by Husney’s persistence, the Grandmaster eventually signed on the dotted line and accepted an invitation to attend a screening in New York last July. It was there that the martial arts guru asked Husney why on earth he had bought his crappy movie. “His response was, ‘You know, daytime, the family come to watch this movie — no this is not that type of movie,'” says Kim. “But midnight movie goers, they really like it.’ I was skeptical. So I went to the theater. Eleven p.m., they start. At 10:55 p.m., [there are still only] around 60. It looked empty. Oh gosh, I don’t want to die again. Eleven o’clock? Oh my god! Packed! And then I sit with them. I was shocked. beginning to finish, non-stop cheering, screaming, laughing. Is it real? It’s real! I was really shocked.”

The theatrical rerelease of the film is being promoted by a new trailer made by Jason Eisener, whose 2011 debut Hobo with a Shotgun paid homage to the ’80s action genre. “I’ve seen every frame of Miami Connection a hundred times while cutting the trailer, and after close inspection I can say that each and every one of those frames is a goddamn miracle!” says Eisener. “Usually when you find a gem from the past, it will have explosive moments, and then some down time where you could probably leave the room to grab a drink or pizza pocket. That’s not the case with Miami Connection — every second of this film is electric and not to be missed.”

The film is also being hyped by Kim himself. The Grandmaster and Diamond recently recorded a commentary track for the film’s out-in-December DVD and Blu-ray and, prior to the movie’s screening at this September’s Fantastic Fest in Austin, he delighted attendees by slicing open a watermelon balanced on Zack Carlson’s chest with a samurai sword. “It went all the way through the water melon and left this green blade-bruise, where it was a millimeter from disemboweling me,” says the programmer.

So does Kim still think his film is trash? “Anybody who is looking for drama, romance — I don’t think they should watch this movie,” he admits. “However, anyone who loves music and exciting action and true meaning of friendship, they’re not just gonna love, they will be crazy about Miami Connection.”

Midnight screenings of Miami Connection are taking place tonight at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles (where Y.K. Kim will be in attendance), the Sunshine Cinema in New York tonight and tomorrow, and in a number of other cities across the country. You can check out Jason Eisener’s trailer below.

Read more:

‘Miami Connection’: Check out a clip from our new cult obsession — EXCLUSIVE

‘V/H/S’: Horror anthology sequel to feature segments directed by the makers of ‘The Raid,’ ‘Hobo with a Shotgun,’ and ‘The Blair Witch Project’

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