The Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction In The Uneven ‘Kim’s Video’ – Sundance 2023 Review
by Rendy Jones
The now-defunct video rental spot Kim’s Video was the mecca for cinephiles who didn’t have access to specific low-budget B-movies and the first short films from beloved international filmmakers. Located right in the heart of the East Village in NYC and during the height of the ’90s through the early aughts, cinephiles from all around America — primarily those who were attending the nearby NYU— gathered and spent hours looking around for specific films they couldn’t find anywhere else. Kim’s Video carried CDs, records, VHSes, and DVDs. It even carried bootlegs of films that came out in other countries, but Americans couldn’t get their hands on them. It had everything a die-hard cinephile desired. Of course, times changed, and Kim’s Video store’s days in the sun eventually faded. Today, the three-floored store transformed into three separate establishments: a Barcade, gym, and karaoke bar.
Despite being a born and bred New Yorker who knows the city like the back of my hand, I was a literal child during the store’s heyday, meaning I was unaware of its existence nor of its impact. Similar to the former Tower Records on E4th street, Kim’s Video was a blindspot of mine. I didn’t know what Kim Video was until Alamo Drafthouse in Lower Manhattan opened a mini rental shop in the theater’s lobby in March 2022. Sadly, this little cinephile didn’t have the nostalgia glasses to have a personal attachment to the subject; that said, I’ve heard countless stories of its importance. With David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s feature doc of the same name premiering in Sundance’s NEXT section, I went in hoping to get a vivid illustration of this store’s impact on older cinephiles. Sadly this tribute turned *checks notes* “crime docu-thriller?” had the potential of greatness if it didn’t feature a pretty frustrating approach to storytelling.
Kim’s Video chronicles the life and shops of owner Youngman Kim, a South Korean immigrant who arrived in NYC in the late 70s. When he arrived in the city, he opened up a dry cleaning establishment and combined it with a VHS rental business under the same roof. Take a guess which direction was more profitable for Kim. As time passed, he created his indie chain called Kim’s Video Store, which had 55,000 film titles and 250,000 members. Notable filmmakers, including Alex Ross Perry (Her Smell) and David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer), who make appearances as talking head interviewees, were either former employees or members at one point in time. The story of Kim’s rise as an indie home video chain and survival through a few decades ranging from the decline of VHSes to police raids due to piracy, was all so fascinating to witness. Via beautifully restored footage that captures the landscape of the store’s interiors and the city’s period when payphones were present in the street, it gives the viewer a satisfying taste of the culture cinema was before #Filmtwitter took over.
Sadly, when the last store closed in 2008, Kim donated all the titles he owned to the little town of Salemi, Sicily. Italian politicians told Kim that the videos were going to be put into an archive. Sadly, it was all a damn lie that never came true for over a decade.
This is where Redmon and Sabin come in, taking their lens from the streets of NYC to the Salemi to uncover the mystery as to how Kim’s Italian outlet never came to be. Surprisingly, themes of government negligence and corruption enter the picture as Redmon steps foot in the city. Soon after countless efforts in tracking down Italian politicians, the filmmakers take it upon themselves to go fully Danny Ocean ––or, in the film’s context, Tony Mendez––to hatch a heist plot to recover boxes of Kim’s collection that laid dormant in an abandoned store, out of Italy and back into the states.
By description, the story is promising but sadly is thwarted by the co-filmmaker himself, David Redmon. Redmon, who acts as the narrator, interviewer, and cameraman, personalizes the story of Kim’s Video. While at first admirable, his dialogue instantly becomes obnoxious, prioritizing what films mean for him rather than the more considerable sum of the film fanatics within the culture. From the top, Redmon does this frustrating tactic where every sentence he expresses, describing an aspect of the city or his relationship with cinema, is followed by a forced reference to a movie. And it wouldn’t just be a reference; it would be the cycle of a statement or description of whatever topic he’s discussing, followed by a reference along with a clip from that movie, followed by another reference, and then back to a statement. This all is on a constant loop throughout the whole doc. One can imagine the annoying frustration that comes from witnessing footage of a moment of history, often interrupted by a film clip, disrupting the pacing and prolonging the already long 88-minute run time. While it might come off as cheeky for Redmon and Sabin, it’s executed in the same manner as Steve Buscemi greeting children. That gimmick is the constant threat of the basis of Kim Video’s story, and it quickly became unbearably grating.
When not fancying his cinema knowledge on main, Redmon’s consistent monotonous delivery constantly took me out of the experience. Real crime elements where literal Mafia members turned political heads get involved in the story are terrifying. In many scenes where you should feel concerned about the well-being of the subjects, that notion is bereft of any emotional impact due to the nonchalant delivery of Redmon’s narration. Hell, one of the subjects of Salemi that the filmmaker interviews ends up dying, and pretty suspiciously too. In the cold face of death, Redmon still retains a monotonous narration. While it genuinely becomes intense and nerve-wracking, where the filmmaker’s lives are at stake over boxes of old videos, hardly any stakes land. Nothingness is the last thing any viewer wants to feel in a nonfiction story, yet somehow, I did here.
Kim’s Video has the utmost accomplishment of succeeding as a happy accident where it inadvertently goes down a rabbit hole of crime and corruption tied into this video’s store legacy. Somewhere within the doc are pieces of Searching For Sugarman meets Citzenfour in the way it uncovers the mystery of Kim’s character and then discusses the importance of film preservation; piracy is damned. There’s a cool ass doc underneath Kim’s Video if the narrator didn’t come across like a college student who makes loving movies his entire personality. What starts as an investigative college thesis short extended to feature length told by a droll cinephile transforms into an engaging documentary thriller. Most of how Redmon goes about this urgent story for cinephiles is so obnoxious it becomes difficult to recommend.
The story is gripping and forms a fondness of the store’s mark on archival culture, but man is it frustrating in its approach. If anything, Kim’s Video does give me a newfound context as to how the Alamo Drafthouse ended up with that mini rental store in its Lower Manhattan location. So whenever I visit the theater for a retrospective series, I have a newfound appreciation for the effort of how those videos ended up in the lobby and the journey they faced throughout the decades.