Alive & Kicking
Devotees of so-bad-it’s-good moviemaking rediscover “Miami Connection’’ and its creator, Y.K. Kim.
Nobody sets out to make a cult film. Maybe, when the reviews are terrible, they start labeling their work that way. But “cult” must be earned, conferred. For a really bad movie to win that status, somebody has to discover it.
Miami Connection was filmed in Orlando in the late 1980s. A martial-arts-with-music thriller in the Miami Vice vein, it came out in a handful of theaters—mostly in Central Florida—and was critically panned, then disappeared. Until 2010. A programmer for indie cinema’s legendary Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, stumbled across a DVD and booked the film. It clicked with their audiences.
“It turned out to be a hundred thousand light years better than we could have ever expected,” says Alamo programmer Zack Carlson. With its tale of Orlando taekwondo students/pop rockers battling invading Miami ninja gangsters, Connection, Carlson says, is “filled with the type of power that’s unique to the best homemade passion projects.”
Soon, midnight cinema fans across the country were checking out what the website Film School Rejects labeled, “the most incredible 25-year-old film you’ll see in theaters this year.”
That’s giving Orlando martial arts master and one-time actor, writer and producer Y.K. Kim the last laugh.
“I always tell audiences, ‘If you love good acting, drama and romance, and professional moviemaking, you are in the wrong place,’” Kim, whose Orlando-based Martial Arts World has some 1,000 affiliated schools nationwide, says with a laugh. But sometimes even bad movies find their audience.
Reviews for the movie, starring Kim and his “World Martial Arts” students, improved, although they’re still bad. “The nonsense bubbles like a bottle uncorked,”
The Village Voice enthused. At least now they’re sympathetic.
Kim, 62, has been visiting festival and special showings of his movie over the past year, basking in the adulation as a survivor, a guy who made a spirited movie now appreciated by those who enjoy the joke.
An Orlando resident since 1978, Young Kun Kim was persuaded to do the movie when he caught the attention of Korean filmmaker Richard Park, after Kim appeared on Korean TV during a trip home in the early 1980s. Kim rounded up his students as actors, fussed over the script, and even read books on moviemaking to direct and edit re-shoots when Park’s cut failed to sell at Cannes—or anywhere else.
“I was not a moviemaker,” Kim says of the years-long learning curve he endured. “I am a grand master of martial arts. I am an expert, but not in films. I brought it to distributors, and they said, ‘No, not again. It’s garbage!’ ”
Kim felt bad for his investors and was embarrassed that he had not been able to keep his word to his students, to whom he had promised to get the movie into theaters.
If Park had appealed to his vanity in talking him into making the movie, Kim paid a high price for that, and his inexperience, he says, “pushed me close to bankruptcy....I never realized that movies, they go through money so fast! Shocking! It’s gone.”
He’d been warned off the idea by Central Florida film folk, potential investors and eventually film distributors. “They all said, ‘Y.K. Kim, do not do this,’” he remembers. “I did not listen.”
He tried to move on, tried to forget, but “I had gone too far with this. I could not quit.” He kept the film alive by putting it out on a bargain bin DVD.
Years later, he didn’t pay much attention when the Alamo Drafthouse booked the movie. And in 2012, when he was invited to attend midnight showings at New York’s Angelika Film Center, “I thought it was a joke.”
It wasn’t. But Kim couldn’t tell by watching the thin audience filing in on the night he was there.
“Eleven o’clock, almost nobody was there. I thought, ‘Oh no, I am dying over this movie, all over again!’”
But minutes before midnight, the mob arrived. They packed the house. They cheered every kick, punch and swordfight. They sang along with the silly songs that Kim’s fighters sang, tunes about ninjas and true friendship and such.
And they cheered Kim.
“I thought, ‘Oh, New York. That’s why.’” In the Big Apple, even a fringe film can find fans. But then it happened again, in Los Angeles, in Richmond and at the Enzian in Maitland. It drew so many fans to the Enzian that the theater booked it a second weekend.
Kim, a busy entrepreneur with martial arts schools, instructional and motivational videos and teaching on his plate, had to find time to make public appearances in support of a movie he made 25 years ago.
This story has a moral, Kim thinks. A couple.
“Midnight movie audiences? Crazy.” They were key.
And, if you stick around long enough, if you hang on to an idea, eventually the fickle public may come around. Now the film is back on DVD and on BluRay, with better packaging and cult film buzz.
“Everybody still says ‘It’s garbage,’” Kim says with a laugh. “But now I can tell my students and my hometown ‘We did it.’”