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.

The guy indicated he had been hired to make digital backups of every title in the collection. I asked if he was in charge, and he made a hand motion to indicate "sort of." He mentioned Antonina Grillo, the project "coordinator" who'd been quoted on the press release dismissing Toscani's allegations.

I asked if she was around, and he shook his head. Then he explained that they were having a blackout, so he couldn't let me in to see the center's movie theater. That seemed to be the reason he'd walked out of the building to begin with—he couldn't use the digitization station without power.

We'd reached the limit of what we could communicate. And so we got in our car and left, and the next day flew out of Palermo to come home.

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.

Yongman Kim, of course, was not the only video-store owner to discover over the past decade that the rental business had become untenable, but his circumstances were unique. A turning point came the summer of 2005, when Mondo Kim's was busted in a sting for selling bootleg mix CDs and DVDs. Employees were arrested, and computers and cash registers were confiscated.

At the time, Kim was distracted by the production of One-Third, his self-financed debut as a director of feature films. A largely silent drama about a teenage hooker and a Buddhist monk, mostly shot in and around the Mondo Kim's building, One-Third was the first film in what Kim planned as a trilogy. When he couldn't find a distributor, Kim funded a pay-to-play week at Manhattan's Cinema Village and then a DVD release.

The reviews were decidedly mixed. Writing in Slant Magazine, Voice film critic Nick Schager concluded that the movie "comes across as the type of overreaching indie apt to be mocked by the rude, condescending clerks at his landmark stores."

Given his financial position, it's hard to blame Kim for giving away a collection he stood little to gain from by renting. The collection's struggle to find a local home raises the question of its worth outside of its original context.

"I don't know about monetary value, [but] I think the Kim's collection has a huge cultural value," says Jake Yuzna, who recently curated "VHS," a show at Manhattan's Museum of Arts and Design dedicated to the disappearing analog medium, which featured a working video-rental store as part of the exhibit.

But the collector's value of used VHS tapes and DVDs is next to nil. Even Yuzna admits that the museum had no intention of keeping its rental stock at the end of the exhibit.

In Salemi, David Moss had argued that a library of physical film objects is actually more valuable there than it would be elsewhere: "What's a video worth in New York? It's dead. Whereas here, it's at least a piece of media."

There are no video stores in Salemi, no movie theaters; the city library doesn't have DVDs to lend.

Yet Moss and friends had told me that when Kim's movies were shown in the castle on a handful of summer nights, the events had attracted crowds who flowed in and out, treating the projections like art installations. Some of the movies weren't in Italian, and in a country where almost all foreign releases, especially Hollywood films, arrive dubbed, it wasn't so much entertainment as it was an oddity.

Does anyone in Salemi still talk about the video collection? Pietro, a fortysomething with square, rimless glasses and a gold chain swinging from his neck, shook his head. "Really, everyone's forgotten."

In New York, the Kim's faithful have not forgotten. "People talk about Kim's all the time," filmmaker Fernandes says. "It's like an urban legend."

As for Perry, the more he talks about the formative role Kim's played in his own life, the more people randomly approach him and ask what happened to the collection. "I'm not dropping names, but I was talking to Parker Posey last night. She was like, 'Do you know what happened to Kim's?' Because I knew her from coming all the time. People are always asking," he says.

When I was in Salemi in June, the collection's future still seemed unresolved. The state had just sent a temporary administration to run Salemi. According to one resident, one of the commissioners' first decisions was to cancel the Mafia museum ad at the airport, which cost just 45,000 euro annually.

With austerity in the air and Sgarbi's projects tainted by association, it seemed like a long shot that the commissioners would consider a videotheque to be of high priority. As Moss put it, "No use having Kim's Video if the streets aren't working."

Shortly after returning to the States, I e-mailed Kim and told him about my trip. He didn't respond. I went to New York to try to find him at his store to no avail.

Last week, I sent one final e-mail. This time, Kim responded almost immediately—by forwarding an e-mail he had received that day from Franca Pauli, explaining that Salemi was having another opening ceremony at the Centro on September 18. Pauli and Kim, neither of whom have set foot in Salemi for more than two years, were invited.

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