A review requested by Salim Garami, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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The story of how Miami Connection came into the world warms my heart and provide me with hope. It is firstly story of Y.K. Kim, a taekwondo artist who became the youngest black belt in Korean history at the age of 13, and later traveled to Florida (by way of New York (by way of Argentina)) in 1977 as part of his mission to spread taewkondo around the world. From Orlando, he opened a chain of taekwondo schools that spread across the region, and gave him some small measure of celebrity. With this little bit of celebrity, Kim wanted to save humanity from itself. He believed (and still does; he has a career as a motivational speaker, or at least he did at the start of the 2010s) in martial arts as a vessel for greater self-control that would lead ineffably to greater peace between individuals and thereafter throughout the world. As such, he viewed the spread of taekwondo as much of a philosophical mission as a business.

It was while he was back in Korea expounding on this very philosophy that he crossed paths with Park Woo-sang, a film director looking to increase his international viability. The two men hitched a plan to take advantage of the 1980s explosion in popularity of martial arts-themed movies in the U.S., producing a feature film extolling the virtues of taekwondo. So the men, one who had absolutely no knowledge of English and one who had absolutely no knowledge of anything involved in making a movie, threw themselves into production. And despite everything, they made a film - a celebratory, cheerful film, a film which it is nearly impossible to watch with a cynical heart, since the sheer enthusiasm of the filmmakers bursts through every incompetent shot or inexplicable narrative detour.

The second part of story starts in 2009, and it is about the miracles that can happen when lost films are found. Zack Carlson of Alamo Drafthouse bought a print the film on eBay for $50, years after its dismal theatrical release in a few Florida theaters in 1988 consigned it to oblivion. The film's first one-off showing to Drafthouse patrons was such a huge success that the company was able to secure the rights to distribute it around the country and even release it on DVD and Blu-Ray. And that is how, 24 years after it flopped, Miami Connection found its worshipful cult, at the end of one of the happiest stories about some old film reels that were stashed away and forgotten ever told. Maybe it's not the uncut version of The Magnificent Ambersons, but it was still a lost film that was found and revitalised and that makes my cinephile's heart fit to burst.

Miami Connection is a treasure, there's no other way to put it. It is a bad movie - it is a very bad movie - it is a bad movie for which the phrase "bad movie" is as woefully insufficient as the phrase "kind of like a ditch" describes the Grand Canyon. It's not quite right to call it outsider art, since unlike other films that earn that title, Miami Connection was obviously made by people who'd seen plenty of movies and knew exactly what kind of commercial niche they expected to fill. But it has that tang of people who lacked even the slightest conception of how movies get made or how stories get told. The only thing I can think to compare it to is The Room, that most notorious 2003 romantic drama, with the extremely important caveat that, whereas Tommy Wiseau is by all appearances and from the evidence within the film, a giant egocentric asshole, Y.K. Kim is, by all appearances and from the evidence an absolute sweetheart of a man who absolutely believes every word of the greeting-card sentiment that appears in huge letters as the film's coda, "Only through the elimination of violence can we achieve world peace". That the elimination of violence is effected in Miami Connection by murdering the violent is probably a churlish thing to point out.

So anyway, the plot of the film is... is... is super hard to summarise. The one-sentence version is that an Orlando-based bar band made up of college roommates who are all orphans and taekwondo students finds itself facing off against a gang of motorcycle-riding ninjas who control the cocaine business in Florida from their headquarters in Miami. That loses a lot of the nuance - for example, they come into conflict with biker ninjas because one of them is dating the sister of the leader of a gang that deals drugs that come from the ninjas, and also because the frontman of the bar band they've displaced has contracted with the brother's gang to get his revenge. "Nuance", did I say? "Fever-dream inspiration" is what I meant, of course.

But anyway, where were we at? Right, the all-orphan band of taekwondo artists. The name is Dragon Sound, and the members are bassist John (Vincent Hirsch), drummer Jack (Joseph Diamond, the film's associate producer, who also got the job of turning Kim and Park's ravings into a screenplay), keyboardist Jim (Maurice Smith), guitarist Tom (Angelo Janotti), and on rhythm guitar, a fella named Mark, played by Kim himself, and my fucking lord, the 40-year-old looked every last fragment of his age. So much for college-aged orphans. John is dating Jane (Kathy Collier), whose gang leader brother is Jeff (William Ergle), and there, we've finally run out of J-names for the duration of the movie. Between all of these people, Hirsch can almost kind of act, and Kim at least has the benefit of not being a native speaker of English, which itself manifests in some truly special ways. At one point, it turns out that Jim has a long-lost father who has just been found by the military, and so he wants to meet the old man who abandoned him, leading a wounded Mark to accusingly declare "I thought we were all orphans". As much as I treasure Kim's incredibly angry reading of this very inexplicable line - was there an application form to join Dragon Sound, and Jim lied on it? - I treasure even more that he pronounces the last word as "orp-hans", the perfectly little detail to set off the whole line.

The point being, the acting is bad. Real bad. And in all the possible ways, from lines that are stressed badly (Kim has a lot of these), to the kind of loud, overly declamatory style that amateurs often lapse into when they need to express "feelings" (at one point, Jane tells Jeff that John is as "friend from school", and he screeches "A FRIEND?" back at her, in a tone suggesting that the concept of friendship itself fills him with deep anger) to the neutered flatness that other amateurs lapse into when they're too self-conscious, to whatever the hell Collier is doing with her arms during Dragon Sound's performances.

In this, the acting is merely of a piece with the editing, cinematography, and especially the sound editing: at one point during a song, the audience is clapping, and the claps have been badly dubbed in with a kind of stutter, so it sounds like "cl-clap", and neither of the claps actually line up to what the people onscreen are doing. Just about the only thing that does work is the taekwondo choreography, of which there is a rewardingly large amount: the film seems deathly afraid that we might at some point get even slightly bored, so it throws action sequences at us at an astonishing clip: seven big fight scenes over the course of an 83-minute film. Unsurprisingly, these scenes are confusingly cut and underlit, but the longer takes reveal some genuinely enjoyable movement by some genuinely talented fighters.

The thing is inept as hell, shabbily made and full of bizarre digressions, including a trip to a biker gathering and a short subplot about Mark's uncle (director Park) dealing with some bad customers, as well as a trip to a sunny beach where Dragon Sound play in the surf, ogle women in bikinis, and make terrible jokes. It is strange and nonsensical, but in an addictive way: the film is so willfully unconcerned with connecting its various story beats that it's easier, from pretty early on, the stop caring about is anything but a strange series of anecdotes. And these are told with great gusto, if no real coherence.

That's the secret to Miami Connection; except it's not really a secret. This is a powerfully sincere movie, made by Kim and Park without a drop of guile or cynicism. It is the work of enthusiasts who believe in every hokey dipshit thing they do, and want to make a big celebration of it. I think this is clearest in the songs, in which Dragon Sound badly mimes playing instruments while singing out hyper-literal lyrics that describe the plot of the movie. "Bikers by day, ninjas by night", they merrily warble as the film opens, and we see the gang of biker ninjas. "Against the ninja / We will fight the battle to win", they triumphantly declare at a point in the movie when they have not yet even made enemies of the ninjas. "Friends through eternity, honesty, loyalty, we'll stick together through thick and thin" they exult, so taken by the power of friendship that it destroys the tyranny of syntax.

These musical numbers are tacky and corny as anything, and they are so earnest. It's adorable. And that, more than anything, is what pushes Miami Connection into the top echelons of bad moviedom. Anything can be this incompetently made - but this incompetently made and also this openly in love with filmmaking and humanity? That's a much rarer combination indeed, a sort you find in early Ed Wood and few other places, and it makes Miami Connection far more cheery and joyful than almost any other dreadfully bad movie of the '80s. It's a relentless bad movie that makes you feel good for watching it, and that's something precious indeed.