In the restoration field, there are plenty of movies that have amassed underground followings for years that finally receive critical acclaim when distributors manage to track down prints and bring them to audiences. These include Charles Burnett’s legendary debut feature “Killer of Sheep,” which eventually became a hit at several theaters around the country decades after the original production.
That’s a far cry from “The Miami Connection,” an uber-cheesy martial arts extravaganza with blatantly crummy production values that was made by a Korean black-belt master in the late 1980’s. The movie never garnered much attention beyond a single dismissive pan from a local critic when it opened on a few Florida screens in 1987. A bizarre fusion of high school rock-and-roll attitude and hand-to-hand battles between ninjas and coke dealers, “The Miami Connection” isn’t the kind of thing that Martin Scorsese’s restoration company World Cinema Foundation might help bring back from the dead, but it’s exactly the kind of thing that Austin-based Drafthouse Films exists for.
An outgrowth of the Alamo Drafthouse, the movie-theater franchise founded by Tim League, Drafthouse Films launched last year under the leadership of COO James Shapiro and director of acquisitions Evan Husney, formerly the man responsible for discovering modern-day B-movie classics such as “Birdemic” and unearthing past oddities for the likeminded genre label Severin Films. With Drafthouse Films, League made it apparent early on that he wanted to split the company’s releases between new movies and repertory films.
“Over the last few years, the marketplace for these types of films have grown,” Husney told Indiewire during a conversation at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, which wraps Thursday. He cited the success of the midnight-movie phenomenon “The Room” as a major contributor to that trend, but he sees more quality in the movies that Drafthouse chooses to support. “‘The Room’ is a so-bad-it’s-good movie, but I look at ‘Miami Connection’ as so-good-it’s-awesome,” he said.
According to Husney, Drafthouse Films intends to release two repertory movies per year, with this year’s offerings hitting screens in the next few months. Whereas “The Miami Connection” is a true discovery for the company, the label isn’t limited to releasing older films that only the most hardcore genre fans will appreciate.
In addition to “The Miami Connection,” Drafthouse will release “Wake in Fright,” the 1971 Kafkaesque tale of a burnt-out teacher (Gary Bond) who endures a series of misadventures in a lurid Australian Outback ghost town, from “First Blood” director Ted Kotcheff. While “Wake in Fright” premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and garnered acclaim from Scorsese and others, various rights issues and general neglect prevented it from receiving a theatrical release in the United States.
Even as it was critically acclaimed, “Wake in Fright” was just strange and eccentric enough for the Drafthouse label. Husney first saw it when a print passed through Los Angeles and played at Cinefamily in 2009. The day he started working at Drafthouse, he brought it to League’s attention. “It was unlike anything I’d ever seen, this film about bruised masculinity that’s funny, dark, scary, beautifully absurd and nightmarish at the same time,” Husney said. “I had this gut reaction that it needed to be discovered or it would go away.”
With the movie opening at New York’s Film Forum next Friday and a DVD release planned for early next year, “Wake in Fright” now has a better shot at finding any number of audiences, from those impressed by its surreal take on a struggling everyman encountering humanity in its most depraved state of isolation to those compelled by its shock value, which includes a memorably unsettling scene of kangaroo slaughter shot during an actual hunt. Kotcheff’s own experience encountering a community of rambunctious and perpetually drunk Outback residents while making the movie comes through in its eclectic range of characters, whose hedonism has a jarring effect on Bond’s character. The backstory and the plot have so much in common that “Wake in Fright” is practically a film noir documentary. “There’s a rabbit hole that keeps going further into the mythos behind it,” Husney said. “That’s when you know you want to be a part of something.”
That feeling was amplified with “Miami Connection,” which was initially discovered by Drafthouse archivist and programmer Zack Carlson. In 2009, Carlson bought a print of “Miami Connection” on eBay without knowing anything about the movie. Intrigued by the title and a fairly low price tag for a 35mm print, Carlson included the beginning of the movie in one of the Drafthouse’s “Reel One” parties. When the first sequence, which includes ninjas kicking the crap out of gangsters, segued into a rock concert and then settled into a story about giddy teenagers straight out of “Grease,” the audience instantly fell in love, begging for more when the reel came to a close.
Four months later, the Drafthouse screened the entire feature, then brought it to Cinefamily, where Husney saw it. As with “Wake in Fright,” the movie became an immediate acquisition interest when Husney started his new job. In this case, most of the people involved with the production thought he was kidding when he got in touch about picking it up. “It was something they had aggressively forgotten about,” Husney said. “They would quickly hang up the phone. Based on my experience releasing unearthed niche films, that can happen.”
It’s not hard to see why the “Miami Connection” team may have tried to distance themselves from the production. The brainchild of Korean Tae Kwon Do instructor-cum-motivational speaker W.K. Kim, the movie stars Kim as Mark, the motorcycle-driving frontman for rock group Dragon Sounds who leads his disciples on routine missions to take out the underbelly of Miami crime.
An instantly ridiculous premise just keeps getting sillier, with a barrage of subplots involving the various teen characters training for battle, rocking out, facing relationship problems and, eventually, going shirtless in a swamp for mano-a-mano battles with a rival group of ninjas. If John Hughes teamed up with Steven Seagal, they might get about half way to the continually off-kilter entertainment value of “The Miami Connection,” because they would lack the inspired energy that Kim brings to it.
With not an ounce of self-awareness, the sincerity of “Miami Connection” keeps it in flux, which is a big reason why the Drafthouse team was drawn to it. Kim, a Korean immigrant who arrived penniless in the U.S. before rising to prominence with a martial arts school, invested everything in the ill-fated project. “He built up enough money to survive and then put everything he had into this movie,” Carlson said. “And then he obliterated everything he had again.”
Having faced defeat twice, Kim long assumed “The Miami Connection” was a lost cause, but still begrudgingly attended a screening earlier this year at the New York Asian Film Festival, where he met Husney. “He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Why did you buy this garbage?'” Husney recalls. “I had a hard time explaining it, but I don’t think it’s garbage. It’s super fun and has a lot of heart.”
When Kim saw the crowd reaction, he started to come around, a revelation on full display at this year’s Fantastic Fest: Before the Austin screening, Kim showed off his swordsmanship to a raucous crowd; an afterparty featuring the reunion of the film’s band members performing its two songs was also a big hit. If Drafthouse can replicate that kind of enthusiasm when the movie opens in 25 cities starting November 2 — mostly with midnight screenings — Husney thinks the company can propel it to newfound cult status. “It’s so rare to find movies that are valuable as curiosities and also as pure entertainment,” he said.
No matter what happens, to date the new wave of interest in the movie has already had a significant impact on its maker. When Carlson moderated a commentary track for the DVD that’s set to come out in December, he asked Kim if the production was worth all the trouble. Kim, a middle-aged man accustomed to speaking enthusiastically whenever he faces a microphone, was suddenly stunned into silence. According to Carlson, a pair of tears streamed down the Tae Kwon Do master’s cheeks. Finally, he quietly responded, “Yes.”