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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.

Before last week, Kim told me, he hadn't even heard from Salemi in more than a year. His last visit there was for the gala opening. He remembers giving an hour-long speech in Salemi. "Everybody gave me a warm welcome," Kim bragged to me. "They loved my speech."

That day in 2010, Sgarbi had cemented Kim's devotion by introducing him to Italian filmmaker Gualtiero Jacopetti, whose 1962 cult classic, Mondo Cane, was the namesake of Mondo Kim's, and also to "Sgarbi's personal friend," a media mogul from Rome who had pledged 2 million euro to launch in Salemi a month-long arts festival built around Kim's collection. Kim says he was kept in the loop about that project, but "then he seemed to have some financial problems. So this has been discontinued for the past year and a half."

Then, suddenly, progress. Perhaps.

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.

Just before she fled Salemi, Pauli told me, she'd applied for 700,000 euros in public funds to support initiatives in Salemi. The application was eventually accepted, but the money had been mysteriously frozen for two years. Now, Pauli says, the money has somehow been freed up. Although most of Sgarbi's other projects were scrapped, Kim's was approved—or, at least, enough funds were targeted to bring the movie theater at the Kim's Center up to code, to bring in digitization equipment, and to shelve and catalog the collection.

UCLA's Agnew thinks Toscani's February media blitz might have driven some type of protective action—if only temporarily. "I suspect someone in Palermo decided that it would be politically really problematic if this got out that they'd taken these films from this poor guy in New York and then essentially just left them lying around to decay, you know? In that sense, there's likely to be some attention paid to these things but only so long as it's in the news. The minute something slips off even the third or fourth page of the newspaper, I think, it wouldn't be a priority anymore."

Throughout our conversation, Kim is weirdly cheerful about the state of affairs in Salemi. "I'm so curious to see how much has been done," he says. "If they have my whole collection digitized, oh, boy! That would be awesome."

Given the troubled history of the venture—and his still-unmet "condition" that its owners provide "access to Kim's members"—his obstinate sunniness almost seems delusional.

Maybe ignorance is bliss. Kim says he never heard about Toscani's allegations that the collection was rotting and wasn't aware Sgarbi had left Salemi until that day. But when he didn't hear anything in more than a year, wasn't he worried?

"No, I don't worry," he says. "I've never given up hope. . . . I'm so happy to hear suddenly they had something done."

Maybe Kim continues to have hope in Salemi because it has been such a good place for his ego; from Garibaldi to Sgarbi, the place has functioned as a blank slate for men who were legends in their own minds to act out their fantasies.

But even Pauli, who is nothing if not a realist about Salemi, feels a ray of hope. She remembers initially sensing skepticism bordering on hostility from Salemi's locals regarding the "celebrities" of the Sgarbi administration and their splashy projects, "because they didn't have streetlights and waste disposal, yet money was being spent on these festivals."

At one point, Sgarbi brought in a French urban-design specialist who demanded they outfit the streetlights with eco-friendly bulbs. The city removed the bad bulbs but took two weeks to replace them. "During that time," Pauli says, "two people were stabbed in dark alleys."

Things are different now that Sgarbi and friends are out of the picture. "I don't think it's over," Pauli says. "I think there is a chance for another Kim's Video adventure."

When I told VHS curator Yuzna about my experience in Italy, he sighed. "It's kind of a little bit of what I expected, I have to admit," he says. "In a way, it adds to the legend of Kim's. Because there were so many stories about it—who knows where the truth ends and the fiction begins. That's part of the reason why it's such an iconic part of New York history."

The videos' strange Italian odyssey might add to Mondo Kim's legend—and maybe adding to that legend is what Mr. Kim had in mind all along. Still, it's hard not to mourn for what could have been had the collection remained in New York. As Perry puts it, if the New York institutions that refused to meet Kim's demands knew the alternative, "they would have just been like, 'Fine, we'll take it' and then put the five copies of Old School in a box in the basement."

klongworth@laweekly.com

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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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