Perhaps destined to become a new classic of the film nerd genre, David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s documentary Kim’s Video is an entertaining, twisty, funny, dreamy, sometimes grumpy quest film, featuring co-director Redmon as its protagonist. He is our narrator and eyes, an ardent cinephile-cum-detective, seeking to locate and secure the Maltese Falcon of video archives: the holdings of the defunct titular video store, 55,000 VHS tapes and DVDs, ranging from canonic cinema classics and highbrow experimental films to bootlegged rarities, porn films and low budget productions depicting an engagingly gritty, dangerous, and long-lost New York.
Redmon introduces himself as a classic loner, a rural Texas kid often left in the care of his grandparents, and drawn, in his loneliness, to the electrostatic magic of the small screen, which was always most animated for him, he says, by films. This personal history provides the foundation for Kim’s Video’s eclectic visual style, in which thought, event, and reflection are all filtered through the lens of “classic” cinema. Redmon’s hometown, he tells us, was close to Paris, Texas, a statement accompanied by a clip from the 1984 Wim Wenders film of the same name, showing a slack mouthed Harry Dean Stanton walking stiff-legged through a desert landscape. This technique of referential substitution recurs frequently, ultimately illustrating the broad range of Redmon’s personal filmic canon, while also backing his rather suspect, or at least narratively providential, claim that his obsession with film has made it difficult for him to tell fiction from fact. I don’t buy the claim on its surface, but I nevertheless accept it as a thesis for how the film wants to approach its ostensibly nonfiction narrative: despite its verité style, some apparently factual turns will be too weird, or convenient, to be believed. Truth is stranger than fiction, that is—or truth so closely mirrors the fictions of Redmon’s keystone films that it’s hard to say which is taking cues from which.
The founder of Kim’s Video, Yongman Kim is, indeed, movie star material. An enigmatic and handsome Korean businessman, who once had his own dreams of making films, Kim’s former employees describe him as both charming and a likely criminal mastermind. Ultimately, he came to support his immigrant family with an East Village dry cleaning store, running his video rental business as a side hustle. But in the high 80s, when VHS was king, Kim realized that his broad aesthetic tastes and innovative, even illegal, methods of procuring rare material could be hugely profitable. For hungry New York aficionados, like Texas-transplant Redmon, Kim’s massive lending library could also be transformatively educational, and it attracted a devoted base of members, none so fierce, it seems, as our protagonist. Kim’s stacks, Redmon tells us, “made me calm…[they] made me feel safe.”
Given this feeling that he’d found his true home (i.e., the embodied history of cinema itself), it makes perfect sense that the store’s sudden closure, in the early 2000s (a predictable victim of new technologies), would produce the deep, existential angst that drives Redmon’s increasingly edgy search for answers in the aftermath. It’s as if Redmon’s closest friends, his chosen family—the ghosts of cinema, he calls them—have been taken from him, kidnaped and absconded to, of all (cinematic) places, the town of Salemi, Sicily, so like (in fact so close to) the fictional Corleone of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films. Around 2009, we learn, Kim struck a strange deal with Salemi, and its then mayor, Vittorio Sgarbi (a Berlusconi crony), transferring his entire archive there on Sgarbi’s promise that the videos would be made permanently available, put on display in a perpetual festival, which, of course, would be free to any of Kim’s former members who came to visit. Enter Redmon, circa 2017, seemingly the only ever taker of the offer, who tells Salemi’s affable chief of police, “I’m going to be here. A lot.” His tone of menace, of course, is comic.
What actually happened with the archive, Redmon finds, is a sad travesty of cynical political maneuvering, emitting a sour whiff of mafia intervention, but the inventive and erstwhile director, inspired by his encyclopedic cinephilia and the ultimately endearing and amenable Kim, is up to the challenge of saving film history. (Some muscle provided by Redmon’s ghosts helps, too.) Kim’s Video may not fully convince us, or even really wish to argue, its deepest metaphysical claims (e.g., “cinema is a record of existence”), but it most certainly entertains as Redmon’s kooky gambits and pressure campaigns become increasingly unhinged and risky. Perhaps the film’s most deeply felt theme, rather, is that for the truly obsessed film otaku absolutely nothing is more valuable, worth risking everything for its preservation, than film knowledge and the physical documentation, however grainy, within which it resides.