25 for 25 – TAE! KWON! DO!

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Miami Connection has everything I could absolutely adore about a movie, it’s a dream come true for me. Martial Arts Action, a pleasant cast of diverse characters, a happening scene full of lively extras, musical numbers by a rock band heavily indebted to the 80s (for that is where it takes place and was filmed), irrefutable evidence that the 80s were a ridiculous era for anything, contrary to its title it does not take place in Miami (a city I have little love for), ninjas, samurai swords, fighting gangs, anti-drug message, beach scenes, nightclubs, optimistic inspiration on all fronts…

… and not an iota of this movie is good. It’s actually pretty terrible. An incompetent film on all fronts, especially notable in the acting, rightfully lambasted by critics and audiences for its whiplash unintentional tonal shifts, its inability to carry even a milligram of gravity in its drama, oh and so many other massive faults but I am indeed getting ahead of myself. My point in the first paragraph is that as a child, I would not possibly have been the best judge of entertainment – having loved Van Helsing and Freddy vs. Jason – and so I probably would have had Miami Connection being one of my favorite movies if I were growing up.

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The plot is definitely the sort of concept that would have to excite me as a child: Dragon Sound is one of the hottest bands in S. Florida, made up of a group of orphan Taekwondo experts who go to the University of Central Florida. Still their popularity has been getting in the way of a rival band (that’s never named by still a central figure) and guitarist John (Vincent Hirsch)’s  relationship with backup singer Jane (Kathie Collier) has earned the ire of her brother Jeff (William Ergle), the leader of a gang that deals cocaine supplied by the Miami Ninja – a gang made up of Ninjas. It doesn’t just sound like a Cannon film, it sounds like a parody of a Cannon film and I ate those the hell up as a kid.

But I didn’t have a chance to see it growing up. Indeed, nobody had quite seen it en masse until earlier this decade, save for the film’s screening at the Cannes Film Market in 1987 in a fruitless search for a distributor before a very small eight-theater screening only in the Greater Orlando area a year later spreading into Melbourne, Daytona Beach, and (most curiously) West Germany. It fell into obscurity quickly until a programmer at Alamo Drafthouse famously screened the film randomly after winning a 35mm print on an eBay bid and after the screening received a positive response from the viewers, the recently created distributive chain from the theater Drafthouse Films fought tooth and nail to convince the film’s producer and co-director Y.K. Kim (who also starred as the leader of Dragon Sound and co-guitarist Mark), apprehensive after being burned from the production and release of the film, to allow them to re-release it to a reception loud enough to give the film a loving cult following. And thus, I’ve only been able to see it as an adult and yet nevertheless… it remains a favorite of mine despite full knowledge of its wanting quality.

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It’s crazy that a movie would not ask me to meet it halfway for unintentional comedy (something I often found to be somewhat laboring) with an attempt at an acting showpiece with the keyboardist Jim (Maurice Smith) tearfully delivering an overwrought and painfully expository (especially in specifying his half-Korean descent) monologue on searching for his lost father and the very tightly-wound Ergle delivering my favorite line delivery in the film, astounded by the concept that his sister could have a social life that he barks in confusion “A FRIEND?!” at Jane’s introduction of John. And yet Miami Connection is that, hamfisting its eagerness for a positive message to the audience with songs about being good to friends (“Friends”) or fighting against violence… however that works (“Against the Ninja”, let alone the infamous line about “stupid cocaine”). And given that the direct mouthpiece of this message is Kim himself as the author (alongside co-director Randall Park who also conceived of the film with him), suddenly it takes on a similar vein than the likes of Rock n’ Roll Nightmare or The Room, which both seemed to share a sort of vanity project ego trip for their own respective author-stars (Jon Mikl Thor and Tommy Wiseau respectively). Which… holy shit, maybe those two should be on this 25 for 25 series as well*.

But whereas The Room seems to come from a place of Wiseau desperately wanting to validate his self-esteem and Lord knows what the fuck Rock n’ Roll Nightmare comes from (maybe to have Thor fight muppets in Super Saiyan form like he’s always wanted to), Y.K. Kim – a local celebrity in Orlando for his martial arts teachings, being a Korean immigrant success story, and other deeds – seems to come from a place of true passion and want to give to the community and his students (many of whom make up the cast) a document of optimism and wholesome values, incorporating education, sobriety, and sincerity into the drama. And Miami Connection defies us to laugh at the ridiculous presentation of these issues, but it does not take them with levity and that means knowing what it means to Kim and the characters. And after all who COULD in the end disagree with such themes deep inside unless they were wholly miserable (hence why I don’t trust people who talk shit about the movie)?

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Miami Connection is a fascinating dance between outrageously poor craftsmanship in its overlit shots, discontinuous unrhythmed editing (both provided by the late Maximo Munzi, who apparently had a long and full career of over 100 films, after kicking off with L.A. Streetfighters and Miami Connection which is a miracle to me, though nothing else of note stands out from his list), and awkward leadfooted acting from every actor, all providing an energy that lifts up the positivity, even in spite of such insanely hypocritical bloodshed and violence in the finale. When the action comes, it only ramps up the insane energy rather than bring it down with eyes popping in the characters’ expressions of rage and the outrageous bloodletting for the final battle, by all the good people forgiving all the other good people for fighting because they had to and ending on a final title card “Only through the elimination of violence can we achieve world peace”. Oh, what absolute fun.

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Fun. That’s what the film brought to me. It told me that cinema’s not always about looking for what’s a masterpiece or a mouthpiece for your views or even to introduce you to something new, but something that brings such a visceral basic response from your body above all else and Miami Connection brings out the most pleasant feeling out of me: I have a lot of fun watching the movie. And I’m not even certain the fun is entirely ironic, that I actually can connect with Y.K. Kim’s level and see how he might thought this would be awesome. Or think back to action and music-hungry young me and think how he might proclaim this is the best movie ever made. You shouldn’t watch it over and over, nor should you watch it by yourself if you can help it. But if you do watch it, it has to be interesting, honest (I mean, how many 80s parodies and homages do we have today with nary the true soul Miami Connection has?), and stimulating on some level for you.

The manner in which I happened to last watch this was another SCS 35mm screening at an early low and anxious point in my life last year, bringing Josh – that Josh again – who had no idea what the movie was about and attending with others who hadn’t seen it before and it was a marvelous moment of good vibrations all around, lifting my spirits as we laughed at the good-natured banality of the whole thing, cheering to see Coral Gables make an appearance as a location, remarking that John looked like a member of the theater audience, and chanting “TAE! KWON! DO!” at the refrain of the song “Against the Ninja”. At the end of the show, Josh couldn’t help remarking that it was awesome and most of the audience loved the experience.

I personally consider it the best experience I’ve had in a movie theater to date. And even if it wasn’t my first viewing of the movie, that’s how Miami Connection will always will stay to me, a movie I watched at the right place and made me happier than I could expect, eager to go fight ninjas and play 80s rock music and not do cocaine.

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*Yes, I have an idea of the trend I want to go, but I haven’t finished (or even started) all 25 reviews so I’m seriously considering The Room and Rock n’ Roll Nightmare for this.


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