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How the Amateur Action Masterpiece 'Miami Connection' Was Rescued from Oblivion

'Miami Connection' is now a cult classic, but it would have disappeared forever if Zack Carlson hadn't made an eBay impulse buy.

by Harry Cheadle
May 6 2016, 1:49pm

There are "better" movies than Miami Connection, a 1987 amateur action masterpiece, but I don't know of any film with a more perfect blend of violence, fun, and innocence. In some scenes, heads are chopped off and obviously fake blood spurts out of sword wounds. In other scenes, a synth-rock band sings songs about friendship for a packed Orlando club. There's one long, dialogue-free sequence that is just a biker party shot in the lazy style of an Altman film where someone forgot to record sound. Mostly, it's a movie that makes you feel good. And it almost disappeared forever.

The movie, which was made in the mid 80s by Korean director Richard Park and stars taekwondo master and martial arts entrepreneur Y. K. Kim, who also funded the project, was shown in only a few theaters and did not catch on. According to the Orlando Sentinel, it was gone within three weeks; one review called it the worst film on 1988. Admittedly, it's a little bit rough, as the cast and crew was made up almost entirely of Kim's students, who didn't have any film experience. The acting is often sub-porn level; the editing can be odd and almost avant-garde; and the fight scenes, while pretty good for non-pros, are inadvertently hilarious. Still, there's a sense of sincere joy running through the whole thing that went ignored back then. In any case, it faded from everyone's consciousness, and it would have stayed that way if not for Zack Carlson.

Carlson is the host of VICE's new documentary series, Outsider, which examines the world of films made far, far outside the normal movie-making system, the first episode of which is all about Miami Connection and Kim. He's also the guy who, while working at Alamo Drafthouse, rescued the film from the dustbin of history and brought it to theaters, where it caught on with audiences and became a legitimate cult classic. If you haven't seen the first episode of Outsider, take a look below, and scroll down to read my interview with Carlson about his discovery of the film and what it was like to visit Y. K. Kim's taekwando self-help empire in Orlando.

Watch VICE's documentary where we meet YK Kim, part of our new cult film series 'OUTSIDER'

VICE: You've probably told this story a few times by now, but how did you stumble across Miami Connection? It was on eBay, right?
Zack Carlson: Yeah. It was a five-reel, 35mm print. This guy was online selling a bunch of film prints. A typical amount for a feature film would be in the hundreds of dollars—if somebody's selling a print of Nightmare on Elm Street, they're gonna get $500, $800 for it. But nestled in his eBay listings was this 40-buck movie called Miami Connection that, at the time, there was no description of online. But I was able to look up the year of the release, and I was like, "Well, it's the 80s, it's an action film, it's 40 bucks... like, why not? Let's give it a shot."

So you knew nothing about it when you bought it.
No, I was just being stupid. But I was a film programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse when it was an independent, small company that was based in Austin. And we did weekly exploitation screenings of 35mm films, so I was always just trying to build up the collection.

Once we got it, it just kind of sat for a year, cause I was still looking for a VHS tape of it, so I could watch it. If it was a total piece of crap, I didn't want to force it onto the theater's audience and have them hate it. But then we started doing this thing called the "Reel One Party," where me and my fellow programmer Lars Nilsen would take a bunch of prints that we couldn't otherwise watch and show the first reel of each one to an audience of maybe like twenty fellow die-hard nerds.

The first reel of Miami Connection, which is about twenty minutes long, had this crazy impact on everybody. Like they really wanted the whole movie to just run.

"The difference between Miami Connection and a movie like The Room is that Miami Connection is a good movie."

What was your first impression of that first reel?
It's easy to say, "Oh, in that moment, it was a magical experience, " but it really was completely, relentlessly entertaining from the outset. In the first twenty minutes of the movie, you're getting massive violence, you're getting cocaine ninjas, you're getting a synth-rock taekwondo band, you're getting all of this stuff right out of the gate. It's just like, "Does the whole movie maintain this pace? Does it hold up?" And it does. But even if it didn't, even if it was just the first twenty minutes, it would be like the best first twenty minutes of a movie possible. And obviously it was made by people who weren't professional... but their enthusiasm, and their dedication to it, was just the most exciting thing possible.

Comparing it to some other non-professional movies, like The Room, it's striking how good-hearted it is.
The difference between Miami Connection and a movie like The Room is that Miami Connection is a good movie. It's entertaining, even if it has its faults. With The Room, typically people appreciate and approach that movie in a superior way, where they're mocking it. But with Miami Connection, even a snide viewer gets wrapped up in it. When the character Jim almost dies, if you watch it in a theater, everyone gasps. They gasp as if they're watching an award-winning dramatic moment in a Hollywood film. That's not gonna happen with something that people are watching ironically.

What was it like going to see Y. K. Kim in Orlando while you were making the episode of OUTSIDER?
I had dealt with Kim at screenings in Austin and Los Angeles, but I had never met him on his own turf, where he has his school and his students, basically his universe that he's made down there. He was super warm and accommodating, and he was excited about the project, but I didn't realize how much of an influence he had until we were there.

In the documentary, you're at one of his seminars where he's pumping people up like a self-help guru. What was that like?
Well, that was really unusual, because it was like a freezing Saturday morning, and we didn't know how many people there would be, and it was like a packed room of these people who, like, adore him. There was one man that was such a devoted follower that he was actually lip-synching all of the things that Y. K. Kim was saying, because the guy had memorized the tapes and all the stuff.

Wow.
We also didn't realize, outside of his students, how many people basically adore him—like, we talked to the chief of police for the whole county and other people and they're like, "Oh yeah, Y. K. Kim, he's like our favorite person in Orlando."

Why do people like him so much?
He does a ton of charity work. He does lots of stuff for homeless students and raises money through his schools to go to these organizations, and he's just very present in the community, always as a positive force. I've never interacted with somebody who's so respected by his colleagues and by his followers, to where it was on the verge of almost being a religious affection that they have for him. But it wasn't that way, and he didn't exercise any kind of power over them—he's just like this beacon. It was really unlike anything I've ever seen.

It seems like everyone you talked to who was involved in the production of Miami Connection seemed to be really psyched that they did it.
They do, but I think it's because they were excited to do something that supports their grandmaster. They're like: "Oh, we were there for him, and we helped him achieve this goal of making a movie." Angelo, the musician, was the only person we met that wasn't already a student of Y. K. Kim when they made the movie. But he became so enamored of Y. K. Kim that he was just like, "Oh yes, it was a great experience to work with him, to work with Grandmaster on this thing." Even though the movie was a failure, financially, when it was released initially, everybody still seems to take great pride in it.

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