The Spool / Movies
Sundance 2023: Kim’s Video
The documentary stumbles when it stops relying on the facts in favor of flights of fancy.
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The documentary Kim’s Video stumbles when it stops relying on the facts in favor of flights of fancy.

The video rental empire known as Kim’s Video began in the late 1980s. It started as an adjunct to a Manhattan dry-cleaning establishment owned by a mysterious man named Yongman Kim and eventually expanded to five New York City locations. Though it never went further than that geographically, it became a mecca for cinephiles worldwide. They were drawn in by tales of its legendary collection of classics, cult favorites, rare and quasi-legally obtained titles, and straight-up weird shit. 

Nonetheless, its reputation couldn’t keep it from being a victim of the industry moving from physical media to streaming. The last store closed in 2008, leaving Kim sitting on a stockpile of over 55,000 titles that many institutions would give their eyeteeth to acquire.  

Kim's Video (Sundance Institute)
(Sundance Institute)

Instead of going that route, Kim unexpectedly sent the entire collection to Salemi, a small village in Sicily. The town hoped to make the acquisition the center of a push to revive the local tourism industry. However, after that initial burst of publicity, years passed without further news about the collection or Salemi’s plans for it. Eventually, documentarian David Redmon, who credits Kim’s Video for his movie mania, made the journey to discover what happened. The wild results make up his new film, Kim’s Video

When Redmon arrives in Salemi and finally tracks down his quarry, he finds the original promises long broken in a haze of neglect and corruption. The tapes are just sitting unused in a poorly maintained facility. As the director tries to cut through the endless array of red tape, his quest begins to take on the form of a rescue mission. It finds him tracking down the elusive Mr. Kim himself to elucidate the unusual deal further. That travels in some very strange directions best left to be discovered in the viewing. 

The story is undeniably compelling, but how Redmon and co-director Ashley Sabin tell it makes for an often frustrating experience. The film is undeniably fascinating when they stick to chronicling the history of Kim’s Video and pursuing the truth of the collection’s fate. It only grows more so when the mysterious Mr. Kim eventually turns up and comes across—appropriately for a film as steeped in cinema culture as this one—almost like a real-life Harry Lime. Unfortunately, Redmon has an incessant need to display his cinephile credentials by peppering the proceedings with comparisons and clips to famous films. At first, they’re occasionally amusing, but ultimately will only be of interest to other filmmakers looking to master the laws regarding fair use.  

[C]omplaints aside, Kim’s Video is a film that should warm the heart of most hard-core cineastes.

The film takes a wild turn in the third act. It takes the doc’s cinephile leanings to absurd extremes as Redmon employs a unique method to attempt to liberate the collection. It is so bizarre that it feels like the kind of thing a screenwriter might use to goose up a comedy caper. Of course, I recognize that most of this isn’t meant to be taken seriously. Still, while it does earn a couple of laughs, this presumed flight of fancy plays more like an indulgent fantasy. I would have preferred a more straightforward accounting of what actually transpired. 

Those complaints aside, Kim’s Video is a film that should warm the heart of most hard-core cineastes. It works as a much-needed corrective to the recent attempts to retcon Blockbuster Video as some kind of paradise for film lovers instead of a soulless corporation. More importantly, it serves as a reminder of the everlasting importance of physical media. It highlights the need for movie lovers to continue circulating the tapes, laser discs, DVDs, and Blu-Rays to keep the odder titles alive, available, and not entirely at the mercy of streaming services more interested in the bottom line than in preservation.