Braving the Mob to Rescue a Prized Film Collection

New York City cinephiles of the ’80s, ’90s, and early aughts invariably flocked to Kim’s Video, a set of movie rental stores whose flagship branch, Mondo Kim’s, was located on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village. Kim’s Video offered films from around the world, including all sorts of rare unreleased, underground, and bootleg titles that, in many cases, you literally couldn’t find anywhere else. It was a treasure trove (55,000+ titles!) of the mainstream, the independent, and the just plain insane, and the fact that it was staffed by knowledgeable clerks who ranged from friendly to hostile (and who went on to become filmmakers themselves, like Robert Greene and Sean Price Williams) only added to its encyclopedic punk-rock mystique.

So when the digital revolution forced Kim’s Video to close, an entire Manhattan film culture wept—and scratched its head over the fact that its owner, Yongman Kim, had agreed to donate the store’s entire collection to the small Sicilian town of Salemi. Before long, a mystery arose: What had happened to all of those beloved VHS tapes and DVDs?

Kim’s Video has the answer—and, amazingly, it’s a saga straight out of the movies, replete with corrupt politicians, daring heists, and the Italian mafia.

Debuting in the “Next” section of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and taking its cue from Karina Longworth’s 2012 Village Voice report, documentarians David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s Kim’s Video is a rollicking tale of the inextricable bonds between life and art, and the value of ensuring that the latter remains preserved for future generations. Equal parts autobiographical confession, adventure movie, crime caper, and ghost story, it’s a celebratory affair that intertwines fiction and reality in a serio-comic manner that faintly recalls recent small-screen efforts like The Rehearsal and Paul T. Goldman.

Kim’s Video begins with Redmon asking people around Astor Place if they know where Kim’s Video has gone; when he receives no answer, he embarks on his own investigation. Given Redmon’s discussion about the impact that discovering Kim’s Video had on him upon moving to New York City from Texas, that undertaking is driven by both his personal feelings of affection for the store’s multifaceted collection—which ranged from Hollywood blockbusters and illegal copies of Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma to porn—and by a belief in the importance of maintaining historical archives. Certainly, no compendium was as vast as Kim’s Video’s, and thus when Kim announced his plans to donate it to whomever would house it (and make it available to paying members), there was shock—expressed here by director and former clerk Alex Ross Perry—that he chose to go not with the offer from New York University but, instead, from the one made by Salemi.

The man who wrote that accepted proposal, Glen Hyman, explains that Salemi sought Kim’s Video’s stash because its mayor at the time, Vittorio Sgarbi, thought it would serve as the centerpiece of a multimillion-dollar renovation project aimed at transforming the town—which had previously been destroyed by an earthquake—into an artist’s colony. He also admits, on camera, that he didn’t do enough due diligence on Salemi and its ties to organized crime, stating, “I didn’t really know who we were working with. I didn’t know what we were getting into.”

When Redmon and Sabin travel to Salemi to visit the collection (which they assume they can access, as members), the scope of Hyman’s carelessness comes into clear view: Housed in a random building, its tapes scattered about on tables, the floor, and in boxes, and some of them damaged by water, Kim’s Video’s bounty is in neglected disrepair.

Finding what he was looking for, however, isn’t enough for Redmon, who embarks on another mission to figure out why the archive was so shoddily handled—and, more importantly, if there’s any way to save it. Narrating with earnest drollness, Redmon likens his every move and emotion to lines and incidents from his favorite movies (Poltergeist, The Godfather, The Mirror, Blow-Up, and Nights of Cabiria are just a few of the myriad titles cited, replete with clips). He thereby casts Kim’s Video as a snapshot of film’s pull on our feelings, imaginations, and actions. That connection is deepened by his active attempt to posit himself as a heroic sleuth-crusader-thief, replete with an Argo-inspired robbery of the entire Kim’s Video stockpile, which he intends to return to a more fitting New York home.

Along their journey, the directors interact with a host of colorful characters that Redmon rightly says could have emerged from a Fellini fantasy. Among them are Kim’s Video guardian Enrico Tilotta (who plays some music he composed for a horror movie), cheery police chief Diego Muraca, and alleged gangster Giuseppe Giammarinaro, who’s reported to be the mafia figure with deep ties to Sgarbi and, perhaps, the man who sealed the original Kim’s Video deal. This means that Redmon intends to steal from La Cosa Nostra, which is almost as wild as the fact that he and his cohorts eventually do so while wearing masks of legendary auteurs such as Werner Herzog, Agnès Varda, and Alfred Hitchcock. Moreover, he locates and meets with the mythic Yongman Kim, who founded the store after first running a dry-cleaning business, and who lives up to his menacing reputation and yet also turns out to be a former aspiring moviemaker and avowed film lover who’d like to see the collection treated properly.

Kim’s Video doesn’t wholly detail Redmon’s legal efforts to secure the videos’ reacquisition. But such explanations are unnecessary, since the documentary’s real subject is its director’s uninhibited cine-passion, and the way in which it compelled him to live out his dreams of uncovering conspiracies, hobnobbing with powerful elites, pulling off daring swindles, and saving the day by rescuing long-lost riches. In that regard, it’s a documentary not only for New Yorkers who pine for the good old days of poring over rows of domestic and international releases, but for anyone captivated by this most magical of mediums.

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