A sweeping documentary by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, Kim’s Video follows the personal-inquiry, man-on-the-street format from their previous works Mardi Gras: Made in China and Girl Model. With Redmon largely remaining behind the scenes, asking questions while holding his camera, the film is simply left to wander where the story takes it: from the cool counterculture of the East Village before eventually turning into a heist film with a mafia connection. Haunted by the ghosts of cinema, Youngman Kim’s collection calls out to David; eventually he’s able to rescue and repatriate it back to Lower Manhattan. Its happy end is known, with a collection of over 55,000 rare VHS tapes and DVDs from the chain’s flagship Mondo Kim’s now available to rent at the Alamo Drafthouse’s lower Manhattan outpost, the Found Footage Festival’s Nick Prueher responsible for the preservation and cataloging of titles. Redmon and Sabin’s Kim’s Video shows us exactly how that deal went down.
Framed with interviews by former clerks and customers, the film briefly chronicles Kim’s video, music, and dry-cleaning empire in New York City, including the eclectic collection of anything from underground No Wave experimental films to foreign films without U.S. distribution to flat-out bootlegs. (I once bought a DVD-R burned copy of Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story from Kim’s Bleecker Street location.)
For those working at Kim’s, access trumped the complicated landscape of copyright and the limbo some films find themselves in when distribution deals complicate things. Early on we learn that, in a bid to make things available, films were borrowed from foreign embassies in New York and copied by Kim’s clerks. Kim’s Video was eventually raided by the FBI in 2005 just as the owner was getting ready to make his trippy work of voyeurism, the feature film 1/3 (One Third).
This story fortunately doesn’t end with the FBI raid, but––as we all know––factors of streaming, high rents, and potential use of valuable New York real estate all forced Kim’s to close their locations, leaving the home-video impresario with a massive collection of rare movies. While proposals are floated, including one from NYU, Kim remains concerned with that advanced by Vittorio Sgarbi, a disgraced politician working his way back into the national spotlight as the mayor of Salemi, Italy.
Salemi isn’t quite a film city, yet Sgarbi––who would later become a public intellectual giving sold-out speeches on art history––has a grand vision that includes exhibiting the collection on a 24/7 loop and accommodations for Kim’s members who wish to make the trek to Southern Italy to check out a tape. The collection arrives to much fanfare in town with an unboxing celebration where (of course) the first tape removed from the container truck is an obscure porno from Kim’s “Pee-Wee Room.”
Years later, Redmon simply tries to check out a tape and finds himself potentially in over his head when he starts asking some tough questions. He breaks in and is nearly arrested, leading to the introduction of several colorful characters (e.g. the chief of police who is the only one in the town that speaks English). Local and national politics are why the collection was long-ignored; grand plans for Salemi to become an arts town fell by the wayside due to some figures who, we can say, don’t like speaking on the record.
Throughout the film Redmon remains haunted by this collection, calling upon the ghosts of cinema for help and at times imagining he’s the star of both Blow-Up and Blow Out. He also strikes up a friendship with Youngman Kim, who founded the chain as an offshoot of his dry-cleaning business. (Carrying rare VHS tapes in the late 1980s proved a more successful enterprise.) While he remained a mystery to his clerks and employees, Redmon and interviewees never quite figure out how a church-going family man who lives in suburban New Jersey could become such a pivotal force in New York’s counter-culture. Perhaps it’s all for the love of cinema.
Kim’s Video is endlessly entertaining, embracing the energy of the films that made Redmon, a kid from Paris, Texas who loved movies and was thankfully able to escape to New York at the right time and find Kim’s. While one element of this project seems a little farfetched––though plausible––as the documentary moves into a more performative mode, with Redmon deciding to make a narrative film, his creation is the definitive tale of the tapes, capturing the Lord’s work to find the best possible home for the collection under Tim League and Nick Prueher’s stewardship.
Kim’s Video premiered at Sundance 2023.