'Miami Connection' Connects After 25 Years

Grandmaster Y.K. Kim reels as his 1987 flop becomes a 2012 cult

From cinema fail to VHS thrill to cinema success and back to VHS: 'Miami Connection' completes its odyssey to cult status
From cinema fail to VHS thrill to cinema success and back to VHS: 'Miami Connection' completes its odyssey to cult status

There aren't many lost films that get a second burst of life. William Wellman's silent WWI drama Wings. The Bette Davis-starring Of Human Bondage. And 1987's low-budget martial arts/rock/crime medley Miami Connection.

The latest release from the fledgling Drafthouse Films, this was a film that should have disappeared without trace. A vanity project by Korean immigrant Y.K. Kim, the plot is a head-bending tale of a household of adult orphans, bound together by a common love of taekwondo and their disco rock band Dragon Sound. Then there's cocaine, terrible club bands, and ninjas. Lots of ninjas.

Imagine if someone dropped the mid-80s in a blender, and set it to chunky fun. That's Miami Connection, and it was the brainchild of martial artist/motivational speaker/unstoppable optimist Grandmaster Y.K. Kim.

After a dismal original release, it disappeared without trace for over two decades until Alamo Drafthouse booker Zack Carlson picked up a copy on 35mm, sight unseen, for $50 on eBay. He then showed the first 15 minutes at a special event: A first reel party for the American Genre Film Archive. With 35mm prints becoming a rarity, the Drafthouse has started collecting and archiving as many as possible, and the first reel parties are a way to expose audiences to a teaser of a whole bunch of classics. The night was full of weirdness – I vaguely remember a terrible mob movie, a deeply disturbing German kids flick, and a gorgeous lost Shaw Brothers caper – but showing just a single reel of Miami Connection was enough to kickstart a bizarre revival.

Now Miami Connection has been given the Drafthouse full court press. After a screaming screening at Fantastic Fest, where audiences fell for its chintzy charm, Miami Connection is becoming a midnight screening staple, sitting somewhere between the wild charm of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the carcrash fascination of The Room. It's now part of Tugg.com's theatrical on demand archive, meaning the new and unexpected extra life could keep going. And, as it finally arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on this week, Drafthouse is also releasing 400 copies on VHS tape. No, really.

Austin Chronicle: I've known Zack Carlson a long time, and know that he gets very enthusiastic about projects he loves: How did you come in contact with him, and where you surprised that he was so interested by Miami Connection?

Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: I am not easily impressed by anyone who is just rich, famous or powerful. However, Zack Carlson [Alamo Drafthouse programmer] is an exceptional human being and my personal hero. I was impressed by his extraordinary communication skills and his professionalism, he is truly a genius. He’s like a Grandmaster of movies. I was impressed by his high quality character and positive personality. I don’t even know how to pay back what he did for the Miami Connection, I truly respect him and feel like I owe him my life. Without his genius eyes and heart, the Miami Connection movie would still be forever sleeping underground. 25 years ago the movie was totally dead; Over 100 Hollywood distribution companies and worldwide buyers at the Cannes film Festival in France said it was trash. The media selected it as the worst movie of the year and the public totally rejected it. However, Zack Carlson discovered the Miami Connection and true value in it. He could see what other people cannot see. Some people see things with only one eye, so they are bias, many people only see with two eyes, so they can only see the surface, but Zack can see with three eyes and looked beyond the surface to see the real value and truth in things. Plus, I truly deep appreciate Zack for initiating distribution in the USA. Zack, I can tell you publicly that you are my best friend forever!

I met him in Los Angeles to do the commentary for the Miami Connection DVD and Blu-ray. I knew right away that he loves the Miami Connection because of the music, real action – not computer generated – and he recognizes the true meaning of friendship in Dragon Sound which is also the true meaning of martial arts philosophy! I feel like I am so lucky! If not for Zack, nothing would’ve happened, he is the reason so many people can enjoy the Miami Connection now.

AC: How did you explain to the other people involved in making the film that, after all this time, someone was interested in giving it a re-release?

YKK: When we began promoting The Miami Connection with Drafthouse and we wanted interviews for the Blu-ray, I had the President of Martial Arts World; Master Kirk Pelt find the information to contact the rest of the cast. Every single one of them couldn’t believe it when he told them the Miami Connection was coming back, and some of them even thought it was a prank. For many of them, it wasn’t really real until we went to Austin to Fantastic Fest. There, all the fans that supported us, the packed house sell-out for both Miami Connection screenings and the amazing Dragon Sound reunion concert with people wall to wall and a line out the door were enough to convince them.

AC: There was a lot of excitement about the film at Fantastic Fest: How was the festival experience for you?

YKK: To distribute and promote the Miami Connection, which was a dead movie to the USA, the advertising requires lot of risk and investment. Without confidence, courage and belief in the movie, it is too tough to gamble on that kind of risk. However, Drafthouse was courageous enough take the risk. Therefore, I must tell you that I truly admire and respect Tim League, the founder and CEO of Fantastic Fest and Drafthouse. He has real confidence, no fear and a "yes I can do anything and everything" attitude. He truly thinks big and acts wisely, so he is very successful and helps many independent filmmakers of the world. I am extremely fortunate that he recognizes the true value of the Miami Connection. Thanks to him and his staff, I had an unforgettable experience in Austin to promote the Miami Connection. From the moment I arrived I was treated like the biggest star in Hollywood. I signed autographs, stopped for photos, and did many interviews. The Drafthouse team really did an amazing job of coordinating and organizing a truly fantastic event! I had a great time with the sold-out screening crowd and watching them go crazy when I chopped the watermelon in half on Zack’s stomach and then during the movie. It was an incredible experience!

The most important thing was the audience. I was shocked at the audience response to the Miami Connection. It was screaming like a riot, laughing, applauding and nonstop cheering throughout the movie. When the movie finished, many audience members asked to take pictures and get autographs. So many audience members said that this was the most exciting action movie in years, and asked if I was going to make a sequel. Some audience members sincerely said that the Miami Connection was a much more entertaining movie than the $100 million dollar Hollywood movies. I really appreciated the audience support, respect, and belief in the Miami Connection. I’ll never forget when we were leaving the Austin airport, many of the Miami Connection fans showed appreciation by taking pictures and asking for autographs. I truly had unforgettable experience.

AC: How does that compare to when the film came out originally?

YKK: Back then I was so excited and I had no doubt that we would pack every theatre and it would become a blockbuster. I couldn’t sleep waiting for opening day. However, right before opening day, the most popular movie critic from the Orlando Sentinel wrote a huge article about Miami Connection, saying it was the worst movie of 1988. He had a lot of followers in Central Florida. Despite what he said, I was not discouraged because I believed in the Miami Connection and I had promoted it so heavily.

Finally, the movie opened in eight theatres in Central Florida, after a summer of major blockbuster movies. It died quickly – within three weeks – which means the public rejected the Miami Connection. We tried a couple of other cities, but it was the end of our long journey. The movie Miami Connection finally became trash. I lost almost everything and had piled up a lot of debt. However, I personally never regret producing the Miami Connection, because I had billions of dollars in life lessons. At that time nobody believed the Miami Connection, but I believed in Miami Connection in my heart because I did my best. The one thing that hurt me the most is that I disappointed all my loyal and dedicated students, especially those who believed in me and supported me as a crew, cast, and even extras. I feel indebted to all my students for the rest of my life. I was also sorry to let down the Central Florida Community by not making the blockbuster I had hoped for.

AC: Some films will play very well at festivals and then disappear without trace, but Miami Connection is building up a real head of steam. What's been the most surprising part of the reaction for you?

YKK: They invited me to the New York Asian Film Festival for the premiere of the Miami Connection. So I went to New York with Master Kirk Pelt, Master Joseph Diamand and Master Mike Bugg. I met Evan [Husney], the director of Drafthouse Films. The first thing I asked him was, "Why would you want to buy this trash?" His response was a look of shock. He explained that the Miami Connection is not a daytime movie that families would watch together, but it is the best movie for a nighttime audience of young adults. They had test-marketed it six times, and every time the result was, people went crazy! So they persuaded me to re-distribute it.

Even as he explained it to me, I was still skeptical. If I didn’t see it, I wouldn’t believe it. He invited me to the premier on Saturday night at 11pm Tickets were $13.00 per person. I was still skeptical at 10:30pm when there were only around 30 people in a 300 seat theatre. Even at 10:55pm there were only 60 people. I was very disappointed because it reminded me of the nightmare of twenty-five years ago.

Suddenly, at 11pm the theatre was packed! I performed a short martial arts exhibition, then welcomed everybody and told them, “If you love to watch drama or romance, you are in the wrong place! However, if you love music, real action – not computer generated – and true friendship, you will not just love the Miami Connection, you will be crazy about the Miami Connection.”

I couldn’t believe it! I thought I was dreaming, so I pinched my arm … but it was not a dream. It was real! From beginning to end, the audience cheered and laughed. Even I was shocked when I saw the audience going crazy with a never ending torrent of applause, laughter and screams throughout the entire movie. After the movie finished and the lights came on, nobody wanted to leave. They seemed to want to make the good feeling last. Almost everyone came up to me and asked for an autograph, and wanted to know when I was going to make a sequel.

Many people said to me that this was the best movie they had seen all year. Most people mentioned that they loved the music and the real-life action because it was not computer generated. They loved that the movie reflected the culture of the 1980s and message of true friendship. From then on it’s only gotten better, and audiences continue to sell-out theatres and go crazy for the Miami Connection!

AC: The press has also been very excited about it, with stories on CNN and other national outlets. As a public speaker, you're used to communicating with an audience, but how has the national exposure been?

YKK: I really appreciate for your important question. I strongly believe the best communication is to tell the truth with appreciation and deep respect. The best thing is that I love people unconditionally; audience or media personality, I feel honor and privilege talking to them all. Plus, I love it! The best part is watching audiences get so excited about the Miami Connection. At the screenings that I attend, I try as hard as I can to interact with the audience because I truly appreciate each and every one of them. I also love making my Martial Arts World students proud. I feel like I’m finally giving them the experience I wanted to when I made the movie. Each time a student brings me a copy of Entertainment Weekly and asks me to sign it, or tells me they saw Miami Connection on CNN or E! Entertainment News, I can tell they are proud to be a part of Martial Arts World and the philosophy that made the Miami Connection!

AC: Your philosophy is extremely positive, but did you ever expect to have a second chance of success with this film? And how do you feel about the response from audiences?

YKK: I am Grandmaster of martial arts. I am not grandmaster of movie making. So it was really an accident to produce the Miami connection. Because of this, I had to pay a high price. It was a life or death experience. Making the Miami Connection was a nightmare. I was in hell and too many times close to bankruptcy. However, I did my best to do everything humanly possible to finish the movie. It was too tough to finish, however I finished because I promised my students I would show them this movie in the theatre. That is the martial arts spirit and philosophy. Even after I finished the movie, over 100 Hollywood studios and distribution companies said the Miami Connection was trash. Even further at the Cannes film festival in France, worldwide movie buyers reactions were the same: "Throw it away, it is trash." So I self-distributed the movie in eight central Florida theatres. The media said it was the worst movie of the year and the audience totally rejected it. As a result, it was dead 25 years ago at birth. So to answer your question, I thought it was dead forever.

Again I have to say that I truly appreciate Zack Carlson who discovered the Miami connection and Alamo Drafthouse, the company who distributes the Miami Connection. Without them, modern audiences wouldn’t have been able to discover the true spirit and philosophy of martial arts that makes audiences love the Miami Connection! When the movie was released, the spirit was overlooked because of all the 80’s action movies, but now audiences can see past the surface and discover the great music, amazing real action and the true spirit of friendship in the Miami Connection!

One last thing, the audience always asks me: “When are you going to make the Miami Connection sequel?”

Martial Arts World has planned to produce one top quality action film with modern philosophy every three years to show the true meaning and value of the martial arts based on the 5 Kinds of Fitness. Our main purpose is to produce a movie to promote the martial arts to the public that family and friends can enjoy together, so more people will practice martial arts. We want more people to be healthier, wealthier and happier, and to make the world a better place to live.

Read Marjorie Baumgarten's Nov. 9 review, which awarded Miami Connection a bomb.

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Drafthouse Films, Alamo Drafthouse, American Genre Film Archive, Miami Connection, Y.K. Kim, Zack Carlson, Tim League

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