What you need to know
Our film critic CJ Sheu gives the first of a four-part survey of the films at this year’s Sundance. He calls Kim’s Video by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin “one of the best documentaries” he’s ever seen.
Thanks to the availability of virtual screenings and a diversity initiative, I was able to snag press accreditation at the Sundance Film Festival, which this year overlapped exactly with the Lunar New Year. This meant that the convenience of remote viewing came with the need to not disregard familial obligations, and so I was only able to watch twelve films and a few shorts. I’ve written up my reviews in four parts.
This first part covers the two most fascinating films I saw. As I watched, there was the sense that anything could happen. It might seem strange to say this about a documentary and an adaptation, but the assumption of predetermined events just makes it all the more exciting when developments take a left turn. are published in second part of this series.
Writer-director-editor duo David Redmon (who also shot and narrates) and Ashley Sabin’s Kim’s Video is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing, if not the best. Like all good documentaries, it’s not just a passive record, but an active guiding of the viewer to create a sense of discovery at each revelation. Unlike most, the filmmakers here are at times recording events that they themselves have set into motion. And though they list four lawyers in the end credits, I’m still not sure that those events were entirely legal.
Late last century, Yongman Kim immigrated from South Korea and ended up opening a video rental store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, amassing 55,000 titles. In the face of streaming, he offered to grant his collection to any organization that could make certain guarantees. Bizarrely, the proposal he chose to accept came from Salemi, Sicily. The collection was delivered, and then never seen again. That’s where the film begins.
Redmon and Sabin are excellent documentarians. To make sure that even a non-cinephile viewer would care, they begin with Redmon’s biography and love of film, connecting that to the wider world of Manhattan cinephiles. The talking heads they interview are either former clerks at or customers of Kim’s Video, including such film luminaries as Robert Greene, Alex Ross Perry, and Sean Price Williams. And in a clever bit of foreshadowing that also works to make the story personal all the way through, the film excerpts 58 films that are meaningful for Redmon, as well as a handful of unreleased films.
As you can imagine, the tale unfolds in unexpected directions, and is somewhat dangerous, even possibly illegal at the climax; the happy ending is a triumph of capitalism. It’s also quite funny, as the Italian that Redmon can’t understand while in Italy is subtitled, revealing bureaucratic foibles and (possibly malicious) incompetence. The whole way through, the film never turns the camera on the filmmakers, preserving the viewer’s immersive sense of participation. From a single video rental store, the film spans three continents (it goes to Korea to seek Kim) and ensnares high-level government officials. As Redmon says at one point, “Sometimes, life isn’t like the movies. It’s even more strange.”
A more dread-inducing sense of discovery infuses the last third of Susanna Fogel’s Cat Person, written by Michelle Ashford based on by Kristen Roupenian published in The New Yorker (The New Yorker Studios produced), so far the only short story to ever go viral. It takes some liberties with its source material, but what remains is how provocatively it straddles the line between the perspectives of its male and female characters. Emilia Jones does outstandingly convincing work as Margot, a feminist American college sophomore who has internalized the traditional gender task of emotional labor when dealing with men, here signaled by her constant apologizing (her wardrobe, designed by Ava Yuriko Hama, conveys her character with clarity); Nicholas Braun does equally outstanding work as Robert, an inexperienced older man who has imbibed too much of patriarchal gender stereotypes to actually relate to a woman, or (one suspects) to any person. They meet, briefly date, have incredibly bad sex, and break up. Then the film goes batshit.
The film is a social comedy dressed up as a thriller, which if you think about it is an astute way to describe dating. The tone is set at the outset by a title card with the Margaret Atwood quote, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” With that in mind, Margot’s tendency to imagine being murdered by whatever man she’s interacting with is more understandable; her second-wave feminist roommate and best friend, Taylor (Geraldine Viswanathan), just adds fuel to the fire. (Yes, the minority actor is again relegated to the role of best friend and advice giver.) The film is limited to Margot’s perspective, allowing it to create those subjectively spooky situations often found in horror films, such as having a man joke about being a serial killer. But Margot seems at times oblivious even when she feels unsafe, like when she walks home alone at night with loud music blaring in her ears when she suspects that Robert is stalking her.
One aspect of the story that a film adaptation makes abundantly clear is how it’s possible to have a parasocial relationship with someone that you have an actual relationship with, and how it’s obvious to everyone else that it’s unhealthy. Margot’s fun relationship-by-text with Robert is the hope she clings to during their awkward in-person encounters and his bad kissing — laughably, cringe-inducingly bad, like you can tell how bad it is from the mid-length two shot alone (cinematography by Manuel Billeter, who, sticking to the horror-thriller style, often goes for underlit images). It’s the bad sex that catalyzes Margot to finally just dump him already.
As it is in the story, the sex scene is the heart of the film. The performance of the sex itself is resplendent with character work, and the scene is the . But — and this is a huge caveat — the scene adds a gimmick to make sure viewers get the message. I thought it was a hilarious device, but some might find it precious and hamfisted.
Is the film good? I have no idea. It does something arguably even more important, as my laughing and cringing can attest to: It pins down the very idea of emotional ambiguity.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)
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