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Dragon Sound_cover

Anyone can see these are rather sorry days for cinephiles, audiophiles, bibliophiles, or any other sort of aficonado of physical media.

Driven by a spiraling circle of bad economics, an entire industry of artistic expression and the appreciation thereof has lost its century-long footing, with records and CDs, as well as the various forms of collectable video and literature, falling prey to the viscittitudes of shady business dealings on the part of Wall Street traders and big banking; prices spiralling out of control on major appliances and automotive based on a new paradigm of leasing vs. ownership, with a nigh-utter economic collapse aided and abetted by the active marketing of overpriced commodities to a populace that clearly cannot afford it, with zero down.

With most or all trusted labels having fallen by the wayside due to a fatal admixture of the ongoing collapse of the capitalistic system and the new anti-ownership streaming paradigm for video, audio and even books, we have degenerated from a plethora of now-lost “boutique” labels with often pinpoint focus (Casa Negra, Panik House, Rise Above, even Pink Eiga, who’ve moved to all-streaming) to less than a handful of still active and viable concerns (Shout Factory, Synapse, perhaps Criterion and Scorpion, at least for the time being…honestly, is there anyone else still standing and delivering previously unreleased gems from the vault?).

Into this frankly depressing gap have stepped a few enterprising startups, often developing from Kickstarter campaigns, such as Vinegar Syndrome (soon to release the three presumed lost films of Herschell Gordon Lewis), Reality’s Edge (who released the long lost Bill Grefe classic, The Devil’s Sisters), and now Drafthouse Films, who bring us a truly out of left field grindhouse classic in Miami Connection.

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The brainchild of star Y.K. Kim, a Korean taekwondo instructor and infomercial inspirational speaker, Miami Connection was (co)written by fellow star Joseph Diamand and directed by a Richard Woo-Sang Park, who had directed a number of films in his native Seoul before attempting to break in to the American market with a few obscure kickboxing films in the 3 years prior.

What Kim, Diamand and Park actually came up with is a matter of individual interpretation; on a wholly objective level, it must be described as a blatantly Z-grade action film on the order of the sort of undemanding late night Cinemax fodder that crowded the airwaves of pay cable in the early to mid 90’s, complete with some seriously disjointed scripting and off kilter dialogue – moreso, in fact, than aficonados of the likes of Sasha Mitchell, Don “the Dragon” Wilson and Billy Blanks have come to expect.  And yet despite, if not because of those very flaws, it may be one of the most entertaining, positively motivated films a cult film aficionado is likely to encounter.

The premise of the film, inasmuch as the plot can be said to be following a linear path, revolves around some drug dealers who also are or employ actual ninjas (just like any good pusher of the era would) who run afoul of a combination rock band/martial arts enclave.  How does this happen?  Your guess is as good as mine, really, as the complex web of relationships at times seems to require a flow chart.  Essentially, though, it appears to boil down to one of the head baddies’ sisters falling for one of the members of, and actually becoming co-vocalist in, said band, the rather obviously monikered Dragon Sound.

From modern day street gang rumbles, equal parts West Side Story and Streets of Fire, to overly gory ninja swordfights that remind one more of an Andy Sidaris film than any actual Hong Kong or Japanese martial arts extravaganza cinephiles may be familiar with, the overall effect of the experience is both bafflingly jaw dropping and priceless. The funniest parts are often the quietest, as in the casting of Jim’s father, who is clearly a young man of similar age with afro, eyebrows and mustache covered in powder!

Lovers of 80’s cheese, kickboxing films, grindhouse, or just general bizarro filmmaking should be in absolute heaven here – this is  whacked out cheese on the same level as (if not even crazier than) Godfrey Ho’s two Cynthia Rothrock collaborations, Undefeatable and Honor and Glory (which always stood out in my personal collection as supreme examples of screwy cinema weirdness).

With Kim’s (at least at the time the film was produced) rather broken English (to be fair, his sentence structure is pretty good, but his accent is so thick as to demand close attention or repeat viewing to those unaccustomed to its cadences), a positively insane premise that could only be encountered in independent, “outsider” cinema of the era, and some admittedly good lighting and cinematography (check out the nighttime battle sequence at the hour mark), Miami Connection is a “must grab” on Blu-ray for those whose sensibilities and/or sense of humor might incline in its general direction.

Extras include some fun deleted scenes (which include a nice bit of guitar demonstration in a classroom setting and a really rough impromptu jam in a music store, as well as an alternate ending to the film), a feature length commentary from Kim and writer/actor Joseph Diamand, a making of featurette, and a frankly awesome reunion show where Kim and the members of Dragon Sound belt out far superior versions of “Friends” and “Against the Ninja” to those in the film, complete with a brief and very silly, somewhat tongue in cheek martial arts demonstration involving 2 apples and a knife, and Kim grabbing Maurice Smith’s nose with his toes…

While I’ve seen some honestly baffling nastiness thrown at this performance on other sites, I was quite impressed by the feeling-driven, if somewhat punk style “sloppy” lead guitar work from Angelo Janotti, which replaces the brief synthesizer solo of the original.  If there is a failing to be had, it comes in the weaker vocals this time around, but this is easily overlooked in light of the rest of what’s going on onstage and the very welcome and quite extended guitar work.

“Against the ninja” also seems to benefit from the live setting, replacing the overly polished studio feel with some welcome rawness and immediacy, and with members of the crowd joining the band in the fist pumping chant section. Need I mention the attractive girl singer they recruited for this performance?  It’s also nice to see how well everyone aged, and all seem to be having a genuinely good time extolling the virtues of taekwondo, particularly Kim, who fakes playing guitar worse than Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen combined, but whose sheer joy at being able to get silly in front of a live audience is palpable.

Finally, we get a somewhat over the top infomercial for “the New American Dream”, where Kim works hard to sell the viewer on his program for exercise and weight loss via Bad Brains-style PMA and a very amusing hand exercise which is touted as being possible to do while driving (considering both hands are involved, I don’t recommend trying this particular move while operating a moving vehicle in practice…).  The actors and actresses involved are typically over the top, and there’s some rather obvious green screen effects, but it’s apparent that Kim truly believes in what he’s trying to sell, raising the whole enterprise a bit above the standard Tony Little meets Mike Levy and Kevin Trudeau schtick.  Regardless, and depending on your mindset at the time, it’s either fascinating or extremely amusing to sit through.  Finally, you get the brief “Who is Y.K. Kim?”, an enthusiastic shill for Grandmaster Y.K. Kim which pulls a few stills and points from the infomercial for those without the patience to sit through the full 22 minutes worth of it (to those impatient types, I advise making the time and submitting yourselves to the full experience – trust me, you’ll thank me in the end).

The company also apologizes for image quality, but I failed to see why; for a film of its era, it looked perfectly fine on my screen, with vibrant colors, powerful sound, and solid clarity – certainly nothing akin to the golf-ball sized grain on the much feted (and incredibly disappointing) BFI Blu of Andy Milligan’s Nightbirds a few months back, which all the (frankly delusional) critics I read on the net swore up and down was a GREAT transfer. If nothing else, Miami Connection delivers leaps and bounds above that overhyped visual atrocity…

Drafthouse Films delivers a solid slab of entertainment for fans of over the top grindhouse cinema, and comes with high recommendations.

Miami Connection

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