.Film Review: ‘Kim’s Video’

Documentary of a beloved NYC video store that didn’t just shut down, it went into Sicilian exile

The late, lamented video store culture and its fanatics always make good copy for whimsical news coverage. Even the most hidebound, no-nonsense media outlet seemingly harbors a contributor who once upon a time toiled—like Quentin Tarantino—in a grubby urban hole-in-the-wall stuffed to the rafters with the most arcane film offerings in existence, usually in outmoded home-video formats.

One such temple of obscure thrills was Kim’s Video, a New York City mini-chain of shops that grew out of proprietor Yongman Kim’s obsession with classic motion pictures. In Kim’s case, “classic” didn’t connote only such film-school stalwarts as Chaplin, Eisenstein, Kurosawa, Renoir, Hitchcock, Ford and their ilk. The Korean immigrant businessman’s interest in marketing cinematic art, which grew out of the small display spaces he set up in some of his dry-cleaning establishments, took in a ridiculously wide range of onscreen entertainment.

The satisfyingly “termitic”—as defined by critical avatar Manny Farber—documentary Kim’s Video points out that Yongman Kim’s seven metropolitan video rental locations specialized in the most outré titles, the sort of ephemera that inspired former Kim’s customer David Redmon and his collaborator Ashley Sabin to make this doc in the first place.

Kim’s stores were a hipster fixture in Manhattan’s East Village. Beginning at the height of Lower East Side chic in the 1980s, Kim’s Video & Music stocked some 55,000 film titles on VHS, everything from Poltergeist to Robert Downey Sr.’s Chafed Elbows to muckraking feminist Lizzie Borden’s art-house agitprop fantasy Born in Flames. Film-nerd customers flocked in from around the world. The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, were evidently such regulars that when the store finally closed in 2014, they owed hundreds of dollars in late fees.

In his zeal to round up esoteric videos, Kim supposedly dealt in bootlegs as well as hard-to-find foreign releases. Police reportedly investigated those bootlegs, but the rise of the internet and streaming video turned out to be the final insults to the “physical media” business model. In the late 1980s customers began moving online. Kim faced a challenge: how to establish his collection as a permanent archive and gathering place for Kim’s Video subscribers. Redmon and Sabin’s doc discloses that New York University was discussed as a potential home for the horde of tapes. 

However, in 2008 Kim bypassed that plan to make a deal instead with a shadowy group of local officials in the far-off town of Salemi, Sicily. In addition to storage space, arrangements supposedly included screening rooms and digitization of the entire archive, plus such hard-to-believe accoutrements as hotel rooms for visiting film fans. All Kim and his staff had to do was box up the huge stash of vids, ship it to Salemi, and the Italians would do the rest. Yeah, right. Kim and his group should have gone with NYU.

At this point the documentary enters its fuzzy middle third, with numerous comings and goings of bigwigs from Milan and Rome, trailed by Redmon and his camera. The filmmakers, at the behest of former Alamo Drafthouse honcho and erstwhile Kim’s customer Tim League—Drafthouse Films is the doc’s releaser—visit Salemi to see for themselves, and meet a colorful cast of characters reminiscent of the con men in John Huston’s Beat the Devil.

Many of the reference points in the doc are illustrated by vintage film clips. A large chunk of time is taken up with scenes from old movies, perhaps to distract from the lack of deeper investigative reporting. Curious audiences will probably come away with more questions than answers about the Kim collection’s 12-year stay in Sicily—which ended with the store’s reopening in 2022, back in the East Village, with “rescued” vids. The store is now closed. 

Redmon and Sabin’s doc claims the story of the Kim’s Video diaspora is an “overlap of art, crime and cinema.” It lives up to that description, in an amiably sloppy way. 

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In theaters

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