Warner Bros. and its loathed leader have opened the floodgates to a new and dystopian battle between art and commerce, burying films and TV shows—preventing them from seeing the light of day, sometimes before they’ve ever aired at all—in order to claim the losses for tax purposes. It’s bleak, a come-to-Jesus moment for many viewers losing the media they love and for many creatives wondering what kinds of bastards they’re leaving in charge of their art. Hard copy media is resurging as the streaming Eden is proven false, while plagiarists and pirates have become our culture’s new archivists. David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s rambling documentary Kim’s Video, which investigates the fate of one of the biggest physical film collections ever assembled—one raided by the feds, shipped off to Italy and done dirty by the moneygrubbers claiming to protect it—strikes at an inflection point.
Even if you’re not a card-carrying legacy member of the long-gone cinematic mecca, it’s hard to avoid getting caught up in the mythos. The underdog story at the heart of Kim’s Video is one of the strangest, most meandering, charming and unexpected to get the gonzo journalism treatment. It’s one of cinematic obsession and government corruption, and one that sees two philosophies regarding the value of art square off in the arena of illicit activity. It features an international heist, the Mafia, and at least one suspicious death—and its 87 minutes still feel excruciatingly stretched out. If ever there was a case made that being on the right side of history, in the right place and with the right story isn’t enough to make satisfying non-fiction, Kim’s Video is it.
What they do make is frustratingly close to being incredible. Told through Redmon’s perspective, as he takes his camera from New York to Italy to South Korea, the story of Yongman Kim’s video store and its rental business is blighted by references. Filmmakers have done great things with homage, and namedropping media can tether us to the real world—hell, even Chris Farley’s starstruck interviewer got laughs from his reverential listing of Greatest Hits. But what Redmon and Sabin do drives me nuts, and it’s because it’s so familiar. Throughout the narrative, which sees Kim’s Video amass a huge NYC cinephile following over two decades before shutting down and donating its collection to the small, tourism-hungry Italian town of Salemi in 2008, emotions and plot beats are relayed through film clips. Instead of feelings, we get footage.
It’s a cheeky, self-effacing gimmick nodding towards the way that so many video clerks, movie theater employees and late-night lobby lingerers relate to the world around them. Folks that can’t go two sentences without saying an event or a reaction or an idea is “just like that movie where…” I run into this all the time. Occupational hazard. Seeing it built into Kim’s Video’s aesthetic offered the worst kind of déjà vu. It’s not fun trying to rent a movie while the guy behind the counter shoves Fellini facts at you, and it’s not fun trying to follow the already absurd quest to reclaim Mr. Kim’s 55,000 videos while the filmmaker interrupts things to remind you that he likes movies.
It wouldn’t be so irritating if the meat of the movie wasn’t so compelling. There’s a fascinating level of dedication and investment into the central mystery, pushed and prodded by a beautiful display of Ignorant American White Guy Privilege. Redmon keeps showing up places, bumbling around, and getting answers through sheer persistence, a laughable language barrier, and a willingness to play dumb. Kim’s Video nearly has more twists than titles in its collection, yet few are unfurled with any closure by its filmmakers.
Are there legal reasons that some of the most startling revelations are kept at arm’s length? Maybe. Does that change how it feels when the documentary leads you into certain danger, surrounded by characters with every incentive to do the filmmakers harm, and then suddenly cuts to a different scene? Not at all.
These strategies don’t come across like tactical gaps, deployed to better leap through loopholes. Nor do they feel like being led around the genre-sorted aisles of a video store, each row defined by broad strokes. They come across as sloppy, inelegant and disinterested—especially since the film is already hurting for footage to make up its feature runtime.
As Kim’s Video takes us on its decade-encompassing rehash of Karina Longworth’s massive Village Voice article (which did its own globetrotting, Mafia-confronting Where in the World Is Kim’s Video? investigation in 2012—even making Salemi’s police chief Diego Muraca, a doc scene-stealer, a charming character), every aesthetic stumble seems to be over a new and engaging part of the tale’s postscript. Every grating creative choice snaps closed jaws that have recently dropped. There’s a lot I admire about Kim’s Video. It’s intended as a display of anarchic affection to scuzzy backrooms and know-it-all neckbeards stocking hidden masterpieces alongside DVDs of the World’s Biggest Gangbang. It attempts to channel cinematic renegades—of whom we are still in dire need—as its makers try to give movies back to the people who love them. It fights to preserve when it’s more profitable to forget. Amid that admiration, I can already hear the hardline video store snobs lovingly roasting this shoddy documentary, aimed squarely at their hearts, granting its imperfection a very particular badge of honor.
Director: David Redmon, Ashley Sabin
Writer: David Redmon, Ashley Sabin
Release Date: January 19, 2023 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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