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.

Pauli found Salemi impossible—but she still felt guilty walking away. Then she talked to Kim. "He said: 'Franca, just stop. I'm a businessman, I'm not just a cinema-lover. And I know that some projects just don't work. So this project didn't work. Move on.'

"At that point," Pauli admits, "I was really thinking it would have been better to leave it in a cellar somewhere in New York."

David Moss had told us that Saturday was a bank holiday and that everything should be open on Monday. Cut to Monday morning, and Salemi hardly seemed more open for business. There was barely anyone on the streets. The tourism office was flat-out closed. The city museum was locked. I peered through a hole in the wooden gate at its entrance—it looked like a construction zone in the courtyard.

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.

At the police station, a man in a crisp blue constable uniform bedecked with medals, like a character in a Wes Anderson movie, introduced himself as Diego Muraca, the chief of police.

I told Muraca I was looking for the Kim's Video collection and that I'd heard it was in the city museum, but that the museum was now closed. He told me to come back the next day. Because I was on a flight leaving Palermo the next morning, I asked if he knew anyone I could talk to about the collection, or was there any way to be let in. Speaking in Italian, he made a phone call and then said he was trying to get someone to take us into the museum. In the meantime, he would take us on a tour.

His tour encompassed the few buildings between the police station and the museum: the library, a church. All the while, he kept a running commentary on Salemi's historical importance. His English was imperfect, but he used it artfully; I repeatedly asked questions about the video collection, Sgarbi, and the new administration, and he redirected each one. "Sicily is the origin of culture," he kept saying. When I asked if he remembered the videos' arrival, he said that he did and then began a tangent: "The Americans are a young people."

Eventually, he took us to an office above the library, where he had what seemed like a heated conversation with two men. It ended with Muraca telling us there would be no way to get into the museum today and to come back tomorrow.

I told him I couldn't. Once I was back in the States, was there anyone I could e-mail who could tell me about the status of the video collection? He said something to one of the men, who then scrawled in my notebook a generic e-mail address for the city library.

Apparently satisfied that he had done his duty, Chief Muraca walked us out. I made one last attempt to get some kind of information: I explained that I'd been told that there was a community center named after the Mr. Kim who had donated the videos in town. Could he point me in the right direction?

He shook his head no. "At the moment, we don't have."

We got in the car to leave. The sky was gray, and it was starting to drizzle. Confused, defeated, deflated, we started pulling out of the parking lot opposite the castle. Then I spotted Moss.

I told him that I'd given up—the museum was closed, and the chief of police had just said Centro Kim didn't exist. "Huh, that's weird," Moss said. "Why would he do that? It certainly does exist."

He gave us the directions again and told us not to worry. "It's the only thing for miles around that looks anything like a community center."

We drove down the hill, and a few minutes later, there it was: a big, new-looking building made of beige cinder blocks, anchoring a giant parking lot, empty except for a single car. A sign on the side of the building read: "Kim's Video. Upground, 2 FL." Then, another sign: "Salemi ICIC: International City of Independent Cinema. Grazie, Mr. Kim."

Every door was locked. I rang a doorbell, but no one answered.

Minutes later, a door opened, and a twentysomething Italian dude walked out. He seemed as surprised to see me as I was to see him. We quickly established that he spoke slightly more English than I speak Italian.

He let me into the space he had just walked out of. There was a long corridor, to the left of which sat a small room with racks of video decks like you'd see in an old-school VHS dubbing house and a couple of PCs. At the end of the corridor was a huge, open space full of boxes, and shelves crammed with DVDs.

This was it—this was Mr. Kim's rental collection. Was it all of it? I don't know what 55,000 videos looks like, but this was a lot of videos. I walked through the room almost in a daze and took it all in: Peyton Place on VHS, DVD spines printed in Korean, the first season of ALF, porn. I didn't know how long the tapes and discs had been here, but they didn't seem to be rotting in mice shit. The boxes suggested wear and tear, and there's always a chance that VHS tapes stacked atop one another could demagnetize. But on the whole, the level of care exceeded anything I had been led to believe existed.

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