[This interview was originally posted as part of our 2012 New York Asian Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the wider theatrical release of Miami Connection. Look for our review of the film tomorrow.]
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim — the star, co-producer, and co-director of Miami Connection — was in town last weekend for the NYAFF. He opened the screening of Miami Connection by holding up a red apple to the audience. “Whoever catches this one will have million-dollar luck this year!” He threw the apple into the crowd, and then proceeded to do a taekwondo demonstration. A friend of mine at the screening turned to me and said, “I think I’m in love.”
After I sat down with Grandmaster Kim the next morning, I came away thinking: “I’m surprised someone like this exists, and I am absolutely glad that someone like him exists.” Y.K. Kim is a unique specimen of rarefied enthusiasm, maybe the best kind of odd duck: too strange to live, too rare to die; maybe part camp, but sincere all around. In the room with him was Joe Diamand, one of the co-stars of Miami Connection and also one of Kim’s old students. It was an unexpected surprise, and though I didn’t get to speak with Joe too much, it was cool that they were both there, and he shared a touching story about Kim’s down-and-out days in NYC.
We talked a bit about making Miami Connection, how the film got re-released, and the fact that there’s a different and darker version of the movie out there. Grandmaster Kim even outlined his ambitious five-point philosophy for a follow-up film (or five follow-up films, it sounds like). Funny enough, it was Grandmaster Kim who asked the first question.
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: So what is your nationality?
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: Ah, Filipino. Asian.
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: [laughs]
So how was the screening for you last night?
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: I was shocked. That was fantastic! Oh, that was really good.
When Miami Connection was released the first time around the reaction probably wasn’t anywhere near as enthusiastic, I’d imagine.
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: I was much less overwhelmed when I watched this movie 25 years ago. [Editor’s note: Recording was a bit muffled here, so this is an approximation of what was said based on context and memory.] Last night was just crazy, from beginning to finish. They’re laughing, screaming, and claps, things like that.
How did Drafthouse Films contact you about the re-release of Miami Connection?
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: I don’t why. The last two years, TV stations and the media, they called and wanted to have interviews with me. I refused because I didn’t want to be involved, because I was too busy in my business. But this guy [at Drafthouse Films] continued [to contact me] and it lasted for six months! That means it’s something real, so we responded. I asked them, “Hey, why do you want to buy this garbage?” They were shocked! [They said,] “What do you mean by garbage?!” They had a test market, you know. I mean people were crazy. Between the 1980s and 2011 [when they contacted me], it’s a big difference. So they wanted to have [the film]. Even when I came to New York this time, I asked them again, “Why?! Why do you want this?” Last night, I could tell why they chose this film. The public response was just unbelievable, remarkable, tremendous! And many, many people asked me if I’m going to make Miami Connection 2 right away.
That was actually one of my questions. I’ll save that one for later. But can you talk about where the story for Miami Connection came from? [Editor’s note: I asked Joe Diamand to sit with Grandmaster Kim in case he had anything to add.]
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: I don’t have to impress you or show off, but I think it will help. I am the most successful martial arts business leader in the US, and perhaps world. I went to Korea, and I was on a very, very popular talk show. They treat me like a hero, you know? And action film director [Richard Park], he watched that show. And he flew down to where I live in Central Florida — in Orlando — and he asked me, “Would you like to make a movie with us?” So I said sure, because I wanted to promote martial arts on the big screen, like Bruce Lee and what he did and Chuck Norris and what he did. That was the beginning.
Can you talk about the development of the screenplay?
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: It was so funny. We didn’t have a script. Storylines — we developed from the storylines. First I said yes and announced it publicly. That was so strange. And when I said, “We are producing Miami Connection,” I thought that Central Florida as a community would support me. But it was the opposite! Every single person — all my friends and community leaders and media friends — they came up to me [and said] don’t do it. “You are a martial arts expert. You are not a movie maker.” So, I was shocked! But I already I decided, my determination was so strong, so I started it. When I started– Before [the move] I was 100% right because I was very successful. But this time, they were right. Physically, mentally, and financially, I was totally dried out. Exhausted. So next thing, how to handle bankruptcy. So I had to sit down and asked myself, “What should I do?” That moment, my heart told me, “Hey, Y.K. Kim, you do not have that specific work ‘bankruptcy’ in your dictionary or in your life.” So I stand up. I was faced with tremendous obstacles and I overcame them and I finished this film.
I heard that the original cut of Miami Connection was considerably different and you weren’t pleased with it. Could you explain what you didn’t care for?
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: Yeah, because Richard Park, the director — he’s a real great director — and me had a partnership. Fifty-fifty, whatever. He had responsibility for Korea, he will promote, he will show. My responsibility was USA and world. So, after he finished the movie, he took the film and he left. So I went to Hollywood, major studios to small studios, to show them. Not even one studio said yes. Everybody said, “This is garbage, just throw it away, don’t waste your time!” But I had hope, so I to the Cannes Film Festival, and we screened over there. Nobody wants.
But one guy from Manson International, a senior vice president, we had a couple of drinks, and he said, “Hey, I think there’s one chance: if you reshoot and change it.” So I come back [to Florida], but I didn’t know what directing means! So, first I bought books: how to produce books, how to direct a movie. Page by page. And then I asked [Joe Diamand], he was one of my best students, and he’s a co-producer, and a great writer too — he can write. So he and I rewrite and reflimed and we mixed. The problem was that [in Richard Park’s version], the white ninja, he’s the bad guy, and he’s alive! And, Maurice Smith’s character is dead! So the public hated it! No one wants that one. And then finally, after [Richard Park finished his version of the movie], it was sent back to Hollywood to be edited. They work on it over there, but it’s like nobody’s over there! Because Richard Park could not understand English, and the editor too was a foreigner. So they missed a lot of things. It’s not connected, the movie! The picture is connected but it’s not connected!
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: So we changed all of it, so it’s connected. It’s actually reborn, this [version of the] movie.
Do you have any favorite scenes from the film, or any that you enjoyed filming a lot?
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: Filming, I really enjoyed. For example, [the scene that’s] 30 feet [in the air]. Now I cannot. Then I was young. And everybody just falls down! Down, down, down! I was shocked myself! If just one person died, that’s a bad movie, you know? But the director said, “DOWN!” And just 20, 30 feet people just fall down. I was just scared to death! I mean, that was how high? I don’t know. You watched the movie?
Yeah. [Editor’s note: I think I’ve watched it about four times now. No lie.]
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: I mean, that’s SO HIGH!
[laughs] You’d at least break a bone or something–
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: GOSH!!! But fortunately not one person– We didn’t experience an injury. That’s too high, though — 30 feet is too high! Just constantly fall down, fall down! I thought I’m gonna die.
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: But, that kind of thing was what’s… But what’s most enjoyable is that in life, nothing is impossible. If say, “It’s impossible,” then that’s impossible. If you say “Okay, I can handle it,” you can do anything and everything you set your mind to. That’s what I learned from this movie.
How many cast members from the film do you still keep in contact with?
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: Oh, yeah, that’s a lot. Most of them are my students because I had thousands and thousands of students. Yes, we’re still in contact, yes.
Now the obvious question about Miami Connection 2. In the back of your mind, have you ever thought of doing a second film?
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: We have an organization named Martial Arts World, which is traditional martial arts plus modern philosophy. It is totally different from all of the other martial arts. Most of the martial arts school teaches how to defend yourself physically. But we’re teaching five different kinds of self-defense. For example, number one is physical self-defense. Most schools are teaching how to punch and how to block, but that’s 1% of martial arts. How many people fight throughout their lives? Some people, they never fight. You know. But physical self-defense… What about insomnia? What about junk food? What about drugs? What about stress? That stress kills you! No schools are teaching how to negotiate stress, that’s number one physical self-defense.
Number two we call mental self-defense, which is… You know most people that are physically violent, it starts as vulgar violence. If you don’t know how to defend yourself against vulgar violence, you cannot create the real happiness, because most of those personal remarks and things like that are from your family and friends. That way you have to fight all the time, so you must know how to defend yourself. So we teach vulgar self-defense, which is mental self-defense. And then third, you know, you can escape from physical attackers, if someone attacks you or criticizes you, discourages you, is cursing you — you don’t have to see them, you know? But self-attack!? Self-doubt, like a fear or anxiety, things like that. You cannot escape! You are in Europe, you go to Orlando, you go to Seoul — it stays within you. Because of that many people minimize their lives. They don’t have a successful life!
So we teach people how to beat themselves; that’s what we call moral self-defense. And after that, 85% of Americans live on checks by the month. Why? Because they don’t have the financial self-defense. So we teach them how to become wealthier. And then it’s one of the most important things that I need, you need, everybody needs. No one can live as an island, you know. We are social animals. So we’re teaching how to concentrate destinies and create relationships so they can have personal freedom, personal power. That kind of self-defense we’re teaching. So if they practice with Martial Arts World, they will create a winning future: to be healthier and wealthier and happier. The five self-defenses, we’re teaching it. So Martial Arts World… You know, the best way to promote martial arts or anything, the screen is the best. So we will create an action movie once a year within five years.
Oh wow. This makes me wonder, actually [since it seems related], how you got involved in motivational speaking.
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: Why? Because I question everything. I look at someone and ask, “Why does he wear that kind of clothes?” Why? “Why does he wear that hat?” I question and question and question. And at the same time, I’m looking for answers. Why? “Why does he wear this one? And why he does this one?” Questions, questions, you know? So first, I wrote in the last 35 years five kinds of fitness. First one we call physical fitness. Physical fitness… I’m a great martial artist. I can do anything and everything! But I was in the emergency room seven times. Almost life and death!
For what reason?
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: Why?! Why?! So I wrote Health is the Foundation of Success. I want to dig out the answer. Why? So, I [had the idea] that physical fitness — physical fitness as true success — requires harmony and balance. Without harmony and balance, there is nothing worse in our lives, in the modern world. Physical fitness: you know, if you don’t eat and drink wisely, you’ll never have a healthy body. But water is not enough. We need to exercise, we need proper rest to recharge energy, and we need to think very positively. So then I create mental fitness.
Why am I not like Bill Gates? Why am I not like Steve Jobs? Why?! Why?! And then I found the answer, so I created mental fitness. And then finally I achieved the American Dream! I’d become– My town, actually, like 10 or 20 years ago, people they don’t know the mayor’s name, but everybody knows Y.K. Kim the name. I could not go to the mall, because too many people follow me! And everywhere I go it’s Y.K. Kim, Y.K. Kim, Y.K. Kim. So I achieved the American Dream, financially very successful, but my pain never goes away. Never! Still I have fear, anxiety, guilt, and anger. Whole nine yards! I still have pain. Why? I dig out why. And then I found the answer. So that’s how I create the moral fitness. And so I created five kinds of fitness. I’m still writing. I will finish this year. It will revolutionize America. We can make it a better place to live!
Joe, how did you first encounter Grandmaster Kim?
Joe Diamand: I was actually living in Orlando and going to martial arts school and there was a switch. One of the grandmasters had to go back and take care of his parents in New Jersey. Grandmaster Kim was actually living here in New York in 1977, I believe.
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: Yes, ’77.
Joe Diamand: He was living here in New York, teaching here. He came down to Orlando and he’s been there ever since. It’s kind of an interesting story. Maybe if you have a second I can tell you about it. So he was basically homeless, except for his school. He mentioned earlier living from week to week on a paycheck, [Grandmaster Kim] was living from minute to minute!
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: [laughs]
Joe Diamand: He was like, “Are they going to evict me?” He was cooking his food on a hot plate behind the school. He would have a hose that he would use to shower. I would drive up and help him do the laundry. Like we’d throw the clothes in the laundry and then go down to a drive-in and watch a martial arts film or something like that. And so that’s how I met him.
How did you first get involved with taekwondo? Was it just something you grew up with?
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: You know, in Korea, taekwondo is very, very popular. But at that time when I practiced, not too many young guys [were involved]. Was very few. Because I don’t want people to pick on me. What happened, when I went to school, a teacher was writing something and he turned around because someone made a noise. I did not make the noise, but he gave me punishment! So I got so angry, but he’s too big!
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: I can’t handle him, you know?
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: He’s teacher! So I was looking for justice. Why did he give me punishment when I didn’t do anything wrong? But I said, “What? I didn’t do anything wrong.” But anyways, he gave me punishment. Actually, it was revenge — I wanted to beat him up, so I started [taekwondo].
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: But that changed my life. [With taekwondo], I had more respect for my teachers, more respect for my parents, more respect for myself, more respect for other people. That is the reason I started the martial arts.
Were there any other songs that were written for the movie that didn’t make it to the movie? Because, I gotta say, I actually do, without irony, like “Against the Ninja” and “Friends Forever.” [laughs]
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: “Against the Ninja” was– That name was the first name the movie had. [laughs]
That’s awesome. [laughs]
Grandmaster Y.K. Kim: We wrote that [as the title] once. And then Escape from Miami. We changed the name a couple times. And then finally, we did Miami Connection.