The Strange Fate of Kim's Video

The best video collection in New York was shipped to a Sicilian town with a promise that it would be kept accessible to cinephiles. Here's what really happened to it.

In April 2009, the Los Angeles Times wrote a profile on Mayor Sgarbi, reporting that the collection had arrived; a 10-second video on YouTube documented crowds enthusiastically greeting the shipping container.

And then . . . nothing. As far as I could tell, that was the last trace of Kim's Video in Salemi published on the Internet in English.

To outsiders, Vittorio Sgarbi's most visible accomplishment as mayor of Salemi was the creation of a new tourist attraction: the Museum of the Mafia. When novelist Edmund White visited the town in 2010, he described it as the "one place that was functioning perfectly."

Photograph by Rian Johnson
Mayor Vittorio Sgarbi and Yongman Kim had expansive (if strange) plans.
Courtesy Castelvetrano News Italy
Mayor Vittorio Sgarbi and Yongman Kim had expansive (if strange) plans.

When I arrived in Sicily in early June, an ad for the museum occupied a full wall at the Palermo airport's baggage claim. It read "Weekend in Salemi" above a graphic representation of the island of Sicily dripping with thick red blood.

Salemi is about 60 miles southwest of Palermo and 43 miles west of Corleone; connect the three points on a map, and you get a right triangle. It's a gorgeous region, compressing the highlights of Southern California's varied landscape—urban centers, coastline, farmland, mountains—into a comparatively small space.

My boyfriend and I had been traveling through Italy for a week by the time we got to Salemi. We had visited countless hilltop villages built around a relic or a church, with a couple of cobblestone streets boasting a half-dozen panini bars and little shops offering the same products (trinkets, artisanal pastas, pecorino). By all appearances, these villages existed to rake in tourism dollars. We started calling them Fortresses of Commerce.

So the first thing that was immediately conspicuous about Salemi was that it didn't seem to be designed to sell anything. It didn't seem to want visitors at all.

Filling every seat in front of the café and spilling out into the street, a couple dozen men congregated where we parked near the base of the hill leading up to Salemi's historic center. As we made our way from the car through the square, several seemed to eye us with suspicion.

To compare the streets leading to Salemi's hilltop to a ghost town wouldn't be quite right; in some pockets, it felt as if even the ghosts had moved on. Shutters were down on most of the stores. Nearly new-looking apartment complexes, pristine but silent, alternated with burned-out shells of multi-family homes or construction sites that appeared abandoned. This unfinished architecture overlooked a million-dollar view of the valley below, which put the top of Mulholland Drive to shame.

On that Saturday morning in early June, everything at the top of the hill seemed to be closed. The library was locked; the city museum, which apparently houses the Museum of the Mafia, had posted hours indicating it should be open, but it was not. The door to the police station was wide open, but there was no one to be found inside.

Back down the hill, the Office of Tourism was a one-room outfit manned by a local teenager who didn't speak English. Asked about Kim's Video, he looked confused, then produced a map of the town, on which he pointed out the Museum of Bread. He slid open a glass display case and pulled out an ornate Roman cross, made from what looked like ciabatta.

A sign on the side of the town bus stop advertised a URL and an e-mail address for the City of Salemi. Back at our hotel, I found that the website didn't exist. An e-mail to the address bounced back.

Later that day, at the only bar in Salemi's historic center, I met with David Moss, a British-born real estate agent who'd been living in northern Italy and was drawn to Salemi by Mayor Sgarbi's promise to sell earthquake-damaged homes (or really, the lots under them) to any and all comers for one euro apiece—on the condition that buyers also enter into a contract with the city to build a new home on the land.

The gambit didn't go as planned. "In true Italian fashion, they talked about it before it was a reality," Moss told me.

Moss did sell a few intact houses, but no house ever sold for one euro.

Moss remembered the arrival of Kim's videos three years before. They had come in a huge shipping container on a flatbed truck, which had no hope of making it through Salemi's steep hairpin turns. So the boxes had to be loaded first onto smaller vehicles—which still could only make it most of the way. Finally, they had to be carried by hand, box by box, up winding de Chirico–like streets to the city museum.

I told Moss what had happened at the Office of Tourism. He nodded, unsurprised: "They haven't gotten their act together in terms of what international tourism is all about."

The tourism office had tried to direct us to the bread museum, Moss said, because until Sgarbi came to town, that was the only thing in Salemi that drew visitors.

Sgarbi had interns and assistants cataloging, digitizing, and translating the videos, so each title could be archived and shown locally with Italian subtitles. They screened a number of films inside a castle on the hilltop before launching Centro Kim, a community center that two years before had opened with a gala party the whole town attended. It's at the bottom of the hill, Moss said, in the "new town center," which is where Salemi's population has been concentrated since the earthquake. That part of town is not even represented on the maps handed out at the tourist center.

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12 comments
max555
max555

Most of the comments here are more interesting than the article, this person found out about kims in 2003 that's just not enough history, I'm not against recent New Yorkers at all but if you are writing an article and everyone reading it knows more about the place than you do, it just doesn't work out.

rawcuzima
rawcuzima

I remember when Mr. Kim owned a dry cleaners on Avenue A with his wife. He started his VHS rental video business there. I remember thinking "Movies and dry cleaning? Come on!"

MIPC
MIPC

Cassidy, "armpit of Europe" : yes Kims Video VHS collection is now in the new Kim's centre in Salemi Sicily Italy, some interns are digitizing it all !!! I've seen them.

kelvinpeeterson
kelvinpeeterson

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walkerp
walkerp

I was a regular at Kim's back before Mondo when it was on the other side of St. Mark's and to the east a bit (later turned into a clothing store).  It was quite a scene and I made some good friends through that place, including one of the employees.  They had an awesome collection of movies.  It was back when HK movies were all the rage and though there were still two theatres still going in Chinatown, Kim's was the place to get everything that you had missed.  It wasn't just the collection, but also that all the people that worked there were super into the movies and would tell you what next thing you should check out.  

 

They also had tons of great stories about the place.  My favourite and most outrageous (and possibly totally apocryphal) was the Halloween story.  Mr. Kim had a bodyguard and driver that would ferry him from store to store where he would check on the goings-on and take deposits.  One Halloween, the story goes, he forced the driver to wear a clown costume.  The driver happened to have some kind of stomach flu on that same day and he kept having to go to the bathroom.  Mr. Kim got fed up with waiting and wouldn't allow him to go so that he ended up shitting the pants of his clown suit.  He was sitting in the back of the store with his shit-stained clown suit pants while Mr. Kim berated him for being a "disgrace to the Korean race".

 

Good times.  It's the kind of funky, punk-rock, crazy small-businessman place that can no longer exist in New York.  It's kind of surprising how long it did last actually.

irvoneil
irvoneil

Loved Kim's Video and went there often and had to take a train ride just to get there, it wasn't in my neighborhood. Just going there to get obscure films made me feel like I was tapping a kind of fountain of eternal youth, recapturing over and over my gusto for movies. I couldn't understand why in a city like NY, with all the big money here, all the cinema luminaries and cultural hotshots, that NOBODY could take on that collection and make it perpetually available HERE, not on the other side of the world. Well, this article explains why. A sad tale. @irvoneil 

TheRTTC
TheRTTC

Hey cinephiles. I've recieved sad news from my girlfriend in Trinidad and need to go there asap. This seems a good place to announce this. I have my collection of 60's - 80's exploitation dvds which I am willing to part with to make this trip. Tell me what you want and I'll tell you if I have it, as the list to too long. Some are opened but most are not. I'm in Brooklyn. You don't have to buy the full collection, but I prefer you spend a minimum of $50+ at a FAIR OFFER! I'm collecting for a plane ticket so I need an amount that is going to take a big bite out of that cost. (average prices right now are in the $600 range) Dvd's are 'special ed', unrated, etc. email your request to retro.trash.theatreco@gmail.com  Also, for those of you intersted, I have back issues of Make-Up Artist and Fangoria Magazine availble for sell! Thanks!

marieepstein
marieepstein

Sgarbi and Toscani yell at each other on Italian Radio Zanzara (Mosquito) -- here Toscani calls Sgarbi impotent and Sgarbi says Toscani is a drug addict. http://video.corriere.it/cultura/index.shtml

 

What was the video rental around Houston and 6th?  They had foreign, vintage, indy and they were very nice.

Cassidy
Cassidy

Wait a minute...so this legendary thing I've been hearing about off and on through the years, this "Kim's Video," this "Mondo Kim"...is just some Korean guy's extensive and eclectic tape and disc collection????

 

And it's now in some closed-off if not entirely abandoned facility in the middle of nowhere in Sicily, the armpit of Europe????

 

Sounds like the premise of a student film project!!

Binkconn
Binkconn

I heard of its reputation when I was at the NYFA in late '01, but thought the $150 deposit to join was outrageous (still do). RIP Kim's but not really missed.

LisaKS
LisaKS

 @walkerp OUTRAGEOUSLY untrue and frankly defamatory.

Mr. Kim drove a Jeep himself for 10 years during the peak of the Kim's stores success. His "bodyguards" would work at a single store and monitor the place for shoplifters.

 

Want to hear a funny story? He kept on most of his employees on staff long after he knew he had to get rid of his rental section all the while hemorrhaging $$ just to keep them paid.

katherine.gleason
katherine.gleason

 @marieepstein It was Evergreen Video. They moved to Carmine Street and then they closed. They had great stuff. I always intended to rent the 8 part serial of The Master and Margarita, but I never did. Boo.

 

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