“So bad it’s good” has become the elevator pitch for midnight movies the world over. But as you settle in to watch “Miami Connection,” a well-meaning 1987 action flick that opens in select theaters nationwide today, one man suggests an edit. How about just, “so good”?
That man is Zack Carlson, a movie hunter for the niche (but rapidly expanding) theater chain Alamo Drafthouse. Today, the Alamo’s distribution wing Drafthouse Films takes a bet on Carlson’s judgment by rolling out an elaborate campaign for “Miami Connection,” a movie Carlson originally purchased for $50 on eBay in 2009, to the surprise of even the seller. Carlson says the seller asked both if he’d seen the movie (he hadn’t), and if he was sure he wanted it (he was).
In 2010, the Alamo screened “Miami Connection” in Austin, Texas. When an audience of 200 left singing its songs and acting out its signature taekwondo moves, Carlson knew he was onto something.
The “eighties time capsule,” as Carlson calls it, was written, produced and starred in by a Korean émigré named Y.K. Kim (its director, Woo-Sang Park, has since disappeared from the movie circuit). Kim, a taekwando grandmaster, is not your average aspiring filmmaker. Carlson says he’d seen only six movies before making his only, “Miami Connection,” and that his sole goal for the movie was to popularize taekwondo in America. At the time Kim had lived in the U.S. for three years, making his home in Orlando, Florida, where the movie was shot.
The experiment was a heartbreaker: Kim mortgaged his house and sold his car to finance the production, only to be devastated by the negative early press, which killed chances of anything close to a wide release.
Why the critical rejection? To start with, everything in “Miami Connection” is a little…extreme. In the movie, members of a taekwondo-themed synth-rock band called Dragon Sound fight motorcycle-riding, cocaine-dealing ninjas. Take a moment to process all those hyphenations, and then check out the trailer below.
Real talk: the movie is somehow as energetic as the two minute trailer. In a matter of minutes, settings swing from New York-style pizza places to concert spaces straight out of an episode of “Jem”, to blood-filled creeks reminiscent of a Vietnam War movie.
There’s a creek somewhere in all that blood. Also, say hi to Y.K. Kim, man with sword.
Recently, Carlson chatted with The Huffington Post about all things “Miami Connection,” including how well he knows Y.K. Kim, “bad-good” movies, and the time he helped host a Dragon Sound reunion concert. (For a list of theaters showing “Miami Connection,” check the Drafthouse Films website.)
The Huffington Post: We are confused about something. Somewhere along the line we heard this is the best worst movie we’d ever see, but the press materials don’t seem to say that at all.
Zack Carlson: Who told you that?
HP: It’s possible we just imagined it.
ZC: Yeah, I’m opposed to that entire idea of selling a movie for being bad.
HP: Why is that?
ZC: I think it’s kind of pathetic on the part of people who go to make fun of it or feel superior to it. It’s really like bullying a quadriplegic. People who don’t have resources, to me, that means they have to try that much harder. What’s a really bad movie is something like “Gothica” — that cost millions of dollars and sucked. Making a movie with barely any money — that’s an achievement.
HP: Do you think audiences watching “Miami Connection” share your attitude?
ZC: There probably are people who are watching it for the irony. But my whole pitch is that it’s a hundred times better to watch it without. It’s an eighties time capsule, and obviously made by people who haven’t made a movie before, but the sincerity about it is what makes it valuable.
HP: What is Y.K. Kim like?
ZC: He’s a really mysterious character, in that he’s built an empire. He has colleagues in his martial arts business who are also his followers. They refer to him as grandmaster, and he seems to be very caring and giving with them.
There’s this video called, “Who is Y.K. Kim?” It really feels like something from the Tim and Eric show or the Everything Is Terrible guys, you know, these editing goofballs, but it’s completely genuine. He feels like this timeless basic cable icon that’s been riding under culture’s radar for the last 20 years.
HP: How is he responding to the attention the movie’s getting?
ZC: He actually cried when we were doing the DVD commentary. We were recording, and I said, ‘You mortgaged your home. You lost everything. You lost your car making this movie and it failed, and now 25 years later we’re recording a commentary track about it.’
I asked him, ‘Was it worth it?,’ and he was silent. I repeated the question, and then I saw he was weeping.
HP: Are you worried at all about unleashing the cruel world on him?
The only thing that I’m concerned about is that the attention the movie has gotten now is going to set him up with false expectations of his ultimate success. There’s a two-page spread in Entertainment Weekly, CNN is doing a piece on it, you guys are writing about it. There is this unprecedented amount of attention. I’m worried that after decades of complete, dismal disappointment, he’s going to assume this will be the next “Iron Man.” The reality is, people like you and me can appreciate it, but it’s never going to be playing in a mall in Tulsa.
HP: Then why promote the movie?
ZC: I guess so somebody who is in North Dakota who has fun watching great movies can hear about it and watch it and have the best night ever. On the financial side, I don’t benefit from it, and I don’t think Y.K. Kim is hurting for money necessarily. I think the world needs it in a way because it’s so innocent and pure and adorable.
HP: Is there a language barrier at all that might prevent Kim from understanding fully what’s happening right now?
ZC: I don’t know if he is able to follow all the nuances, but I don’t think it’s an issue of a language barrier. He’s been in the U.S. since 1984, living in Central Florida all that time. I think the issues that would keep him from knowing what’s going on is the impossibility of the resurgence, which would confuse a native American too, if they have no idea what a midnight movie is. Kim barely watches movies, he’s always training in taekwondo. He’d watched six movies before he made “Miami Connection.”
HP: Was he directly inspired by any of them?
ZC: No, but he was inspired by the fact that Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris made martial arts something that regular Americans were aware of. That was what his supposed goal was for “Miami Connection.” He never got wrapped up in movies as a storytelling form, but as a martial arts advertising form.
HP: What was the reaction when you decided to release the movie?
ZC: A lot of people involved in the movie really didn’t believe us. Y.K. Kim hung up on Evan [Husney], who runs Drafthouse Films. He kept thinking this was a cruel joke, that people were mocking his failure in the eighties. We had the whole band reunite to perform at Fantastic Fest for the first time since the movie. When the actors showed up in Texas, one of them pulled me aside and was like, ‘Is this real or is this a joke? I’lll do it either way, but I need to know.’
I was like, ‘No man, this is real! We’re into this. We’re doing it.’
We had all the members of Dragon Sound there, including Y.K. Kim. The band members sat in and watched the film with the audience, and they were laughing and high five-ing each other. It was completely magic and wonderful.
HP: What are the actors doing now?
ZC: All of them are from Y.K. Kim ‘s school and are still teaching there. The guy who wrote all the music — he plays the lead musician in the movie, the guy who looks like Daryl Hall from Hall and Oates — he still records bands in a studio.
HP: What exactly happened in 1987, when the movie was released?
ZC: It had a festival screening at Cannes. Back then you could rent out a theater and run a film and invite press. You were part of the Cannes film market rather than the festival. So they rented a screen, and everyone said it was trash. It was in the Miami paper as “the worst movie ever” before it opened in three theaters in and around Orlando. It never played in New York or L.A. It probably didn’t even play in Miami!
It was this tremendous heartbreak for Y.K. Kim, because he expected it to be this gargantuan hit that would change the world.
HP: Did anyone close to him tell him, you know, maybe it won’t be?
ZC: I guess he heard that from every single person who saw it. He edited it and changed the ending based on peoples’ criticism, trying to make it palatable.
HP: What is it that so turned people off then but seems to be working for audiences now?
ZC: I don’t think that any executives and pros in the industry have ever really admired hard work and sincerity. There’s looking for marketability and perceived professionalism. This movie does not have a lot of the gloss in the traditional sense, but it is so truly sincere. You can tell that people falling on their face are falling forward on their face, doing everything they can to make it right.
Eighty percent of movies that come out are pretty much lousy by some barometer, but some are found and championed. Why does a movie like “Troll 2” bring people back? It’s not because it’s the only shitty movie that’s been made in the last decade. It’s because there’s something charming about it.
I think there’s now such an awareness of the possibility of irony that you can’t easily get a movie like this. You need somebody who’s on a different plane than the rest of us.
HP: What about a movie like “Birdemic”? Isn’t that just a new iteration of “Miami Connection”?
ZC: It’s a different type of entertainment. I think that they were both movies that were made by misguided people. “Birdemic” is not for civilians. It’s kind of a challenge, and it’s paced poorly and it’s not a well made movie. “Miami Connection” is really entertaining and exciting and fun. It’s not excruciating. The entire movie is based on this very strong foundation of friendship and truth and power and honesty, and on top of that, there’s ninjas and motorcycles and electric guitars. Who doesn’t respond to that? It’s so much fun!
HP: Do you have a favorite scene in the movie?
ZC: When Jim checks the mail. That scene to me is the true test of whether you’re a human being, is if your heart skips a beat.