New York City’s fabled movie rental chain, Kim’s Video, shuttered its downtown locations throughout the early-to-mid aughts, offering an early warning sign that the cinema as we once knew it was dying, or at least migrating to other formats.
The chain’s disappearance left an open wound among lower Manhattan film buffs, stranding Kim’s hundreds of thousands of members without a good place — any place, actually — to rent movies, while leaving behind a collection of 55,000 VHS tapes and DVDs that encompassed everything from horror. like flicks CHUD to the complete works of Paul Morrissey to bootleg copies of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma.
The Bottom Line
A movie buff’s acte de résistance.
What happened to Kim’s treasure trove of films remained a mystery for quite some time, with occasional stories popping up — including a long-form Village Voice piece by movie critic and podcaster Karina Longworth (You Must Remember This) — explaining that the chain’s massive video collection was packed into a shipping container and relocated to Sicily, of all places.
In the documentary Kim’s Videopremiering in Sundance’s NEXT sidebar, director-partners Ashley Sabin and David Redmon (Girl Model) elucidate some, if not all, of the enigmas behind Kim’s saga, offering up a freewheeling investigation that’s both a cinephile’s homage and an amateur heist flick, stirring up old controversies while creating a new one. It’s a fun watch for those lucky enough to have known Kim’s when it was around, but could also interest anyone concerned by the fate of an institution that was to NYC what the Cinémathèque once was to Paris, providing budding filmmakers with a place to congregate ( and, in Kim’s case, to work for low wages) while dipping into a bottomless well of movie history.
Some of those former employees-turned-authors, including directors Robert Greene (Procession) and Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip) and cinematographer Sean Price Williams (Good time), are interviewed in the doc, which at first plays out like a fairly standard exposé. We learn how the chain was founded in 1987 on the Lower East Side by Yongman Kim, an ambitious and somewhat shady Korean immigrant who started off in the dry cleaning business and pivoted to video stores when he realized there was a demand for rare, underground and imported VHS tapes in the neighborhood.
He soon expanded to five other locations in the city and a collection that contained literally every movie Kim could put his hands on. This included foreign films he would bootleg from cassettes loaned to him by international embassies uptown, prompting the FBI to raid Kim’s stores several times in order to seize the tapes, only for Kim to dub them all over again.
What made Kim’s Video so legendary was indeed this very downtown punk approach to cinema — where the legality of what you were renting wasn’t always certain, where the early shorts of Alain Resnais sat on shelves nearby cult items like Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage and the films of transgressive artist Nick Zedd, and where snobby clerks would practically spit on you if you asked for something that wasn’t in their canon.
All of this serves as background for what Sabin and Redmon are really after, which is to try and understand why, after closing his last location in 2008, Kim decided to donate the entirety of his collection to the tiny Sicilian city of Salemi (population just under 11,000), where it was meant to be turned into some kind of Kim’s archive/lending library.
This, alas, never happened, and the directors travel all the way to Sicily to get to the bottom of things, chasing down dubious Italian politicians — including TV art critic and Silvio Berlusconi crony Vittorio Sgarbi — while nearly getting chased out of town. Through much harassing, all of it done in broken Italian or with the help of a translator, they wind up uncovering a story that plays out like a low-budget caper, replete with corruption, slippery personalities, missing cash and one actual robbery.
Until the end, Yongman Kim and his Sicilian partners remain elusive about the deal they made, and you’ve got to give the filmmakers credit for not only exposing much of what went down, but also attempting to save the fated video collection in the process. . Less successful are the countless references they use to illustrate the action, cutting in clips from La Dolce Vita, Blow-Up, The Conversation, Blue Velvet and other classics in a very literal manner, as if to prove that they too are bona fide Kim’s devotees.
Their inquiry ultimately leads to a happy ending that hardcore film buffs are no doubt grateful for, but there’s another question surrounding Kim’s disappearance that remains more or less unexplored: Saving Kim’s may benefit New Yorkers still longing for its snarky employees and photocopied cassette jackets, but what does it say about the general state of cinema when such a place feels more like a museum than somewhere people go to get their movies, if they’re still getting movies at all?
Many cinephiles are nostalgic at heart, and the story of how Kim’s Video was founded, lost and eventually found again seems to reflect a greater story about how the cinema, whether consisting of Palme d’Or winners or Z-grade slashers, has been pushed to the margins of popular culture — to be fondly remembered in documentaries like this.
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