The words “Quentin Tarantino” and “video store” will forever be linked in the popular imagination. But imagine that Quentin didn’t just work at a video store. Imagine that he owned, operated, designed, and organized every shelf of the video store of his dreams. That place might have looked a lot like Kim’s Video.
If you were an ardent film fanatic and you walked into Kim’s, the fabled New York movie-rental emporium, which opened in 1987 and ultimately expanded to five Manhattan locations (the most famous was Mondo Kim’s on St. Mark’s Place), the store looked like nothing so much as the inside of your brain. At Kim’s, you seemed to be standing in the middle of an explosion of cinema. It was a store where grindhouse movies rubbed shoulders with Bergman and Bresson, where the wall of horror included films by Dario Argento that weren’t even out on video, where the avant-garde felt mainstream and genres like action and espionage were displayed like the subversions of sanity they actually were. What Kim’s was about — more than any other video store — was possibility.
“Kim’s Video” is a film about the rise and fall of this beloved institution, and if the entire documentary were simply devoted to exploring the era of what it meant to watch movies on VHS and DVD, and what finding them at Kim’s was all about, I would have been as happy as a clam to watch it. The film opens with David Redmon, one of the film’s co-directors (the other is his wife, Ashley Sabin), approaching people in the St. Marks Place area and asking them if they remember Kim’s, which many of them do, and if they wonder what happened to it, which provokes responses along the lines of, “Probably went out of business. Because nobody rents videos anymore.”
Redmon, as he explains, was born to teenage parents in Texas and sent to live with his grandparents when he was six. It was there that he escaped into movies, feeling a terrified awe at the spectacle of “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.” He ultimately set his sights on New York, where lured by tales of the sleaze and danger of the 1980s he was drawn to the East Village.
By the time he got there, most of the legendary squalor was just a memory. But what he found at Kim’s, with its cornucopia of movies, its bohemian outlaw fetishism, its shelves orchestrated in a way that managed to be at once haphazard and OCD (what other place would display its auteur sections so that you’d find Eric Rohmer a few rows up from Russ Meyer, who had an entire shelf?), was a high-meets-low cinematic swamp that kept the dream of that earlier New York alive.
“They had so much stuff that you couldn’t find anywhere,” recalls the film critic Dennis Dermody. Like bootlegs of movies from Europe and the New York underground, or reams of ’60s drive-in pulp. What was heady about Kim’s was the connections it made among all those things. The store said: Peckinpah and Carl Dreyer have more in common, and more in common with John Waters and Maya Deren and “Ms. 45,” than any of them have in common with the post-“Star Wars” landscape of blockbuster sterility.
Watching “Kim’s Video,” I was primed for a tantalizing nostalgia trip. To my surprise, though, the film’s exploration of the glory days of Kim’s — what the store was like, the metaphysics of film as physical media — lasts all of 10 minutes. Seriously, the film could have used a little more cinemania meditation. But Redmon wastes no time cutting to the beginning of the end: the decision to close down Kim’s and find a home for its treasure trove of VHS tapes and DVDs. The year was 2007, and the writing was already on the wall for video stores, even outré hipster-central ones like Kim’s. At the time, much coverage was devoted to the deal that set up the store’s vast stockpile of films to become a well-tended archive in Sicily. After that, the saga sort of ended. But what became of the Kim’s collection?
That, as it turns out, is the real subject of “Kim’s Video,” a film-geek reverie that winds up diving down a rabbit hole of underground intrigue. The movie fashions itself a kind of documentary thriller, and the suspense begins by plumbing the mystery of the man who owned Kim’s. His name is Youngman Kim, and he’s a tall, burly, corporate-cool South Korean immigrant of few words who was 21 when he arrived in New York City in 1979. He started a dry-cleaning business and had an idea to place random copies of VHS tapes on a shelf for people to rent. It turned out that the video rentals were more successful than the dry-cleaning. So he opened the first Kim’s Video.
By the time the stores had caught on, the St. Marks location had 55,000 titles, as well as 250,000 members. So this was a solid business. But Kim remained an imposing and elusive figure. In the movie, several former employees describe him as “scary,” an assessment reinforced by a detail that I was surprised the film leaves out: The Kim’s stores were patrolled by sunglassed security guards who always made you feel you were being watched as you perused that Jodorowsky box set. Mr. Kim dispatched representatives to international film festivals to find movies that had never been released; he also built his collection by requesting movies from embassies in New York, copying them and renting them.
Was this legal? No. But that was part of the appeal. Kim’s Video lived up to its “underground” billing. You could rely on it to find copies of films like Todd Haynes’ “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” or Godard’s “Histoire(s) du cinéma,” both of which Kim’s bootlegged. (You’d think that Godard would have appreciated Kim’s. But no, he had his lawyers send a cease-and-desist letter.) Kim’s was ultimately raided by the FBI in 2003. They took away the bootleg tapes, and weeks later Kim replaced them with other bootleg tapes.
But by the time he agreed to hand off his collection to Salemi, a small town in Sicily that was 43 miles from Corleone (and looked just like it: dusty, sunbaked, and ancient), the deal was looking a little shady. Redmond travels to Salemi to learn what happened to the Kim’s collection, and discovers it housed in a warehouse in the back of a beautiful church ruin. There, it sits on shelves, indifferent and ignored. Regular screenings had been promised; so had access to the collection for Kim’s members, after the films were digitized. But most of that didn’t happen. Redmon explores what did happen, and the cast of characters he turns up — Vittorio Sgarbi, the former mayor of Salemi and an associate of Silvio Berlusconi; Pino Giammarinaro, a figure with Mafia ties — starts to make it look like something singularly dark is going on.
It may be less dark than meets the eye. “Kim’s Video” turns into a lo-fi Michael Moore movie as would-be thriller, and what comes to the fore is that the funds that should have been applied to the Kim’s collection were diverted by unseemly forces. That’s the way corruption works in Sicily: a lot of bureaucratic skimming off the top. But the true subject that emerges from “Kim’s Video” is that when it came to the fate of the Kim’s collection, the world had moved on — but David Redmon, who saw his entire life as a movie, had not moved on. He thought it was his destiny to save Kim’s.
And guess what? He did. “Kim’s Video” becomes a cockeyed investigatory muckraker turned rescue mission, with Redmon, inspired by “Argo” (of all films), devising a way to get the collection back. How? He steals it! Which is pretty gutsy, given all the Sicilian mob energy on hand, though I’d have been more caught up in the action if the film didn’t leave you feeling that its presentation of the events was a little sketchy.
“Kim’s Video” is a flaked-out, one-of-a-kind story of film obsession that’s graced with a happy ending. The entire collection winds up being housed in one of sprawling lobbies of the new Alamo Drafthouse in Manhattan. I saw it there myself for the first time about a year ago, and it was eerie. There were the posters, the VHS tapes, the DVDs, and, mostly, files of plastic sleeves of the movies, which are now available to rent for free. And there, more intact than not, was the Kim’s vibe. Before, though, I felt like I was in a video store. Now I felt like I was in a museum. What was scruffy had become rarefied. What was underground had gone under hot display lights. Even in the streaming era, you could still watch Kim’s movies. But they would never get back to where they once belonged.