I started my cinematic 2015 in 1963. That is, the first movie I watched was Yu Hyun-mok’s The Daughters of Pharmacist Kim on DVD. I have had access to a considerable number of South Korean films from the 1960s beyond those I’ve purchased thanks to the treasure trove of DVDs available at the DVD rental store Le Video in the Inner Sunset district of San Francisco. However, although I started my year with a classic flick from Le Video, I will not end my year with a Le Video rental. They closed down the last weekend of November.
I watched 39 DVDs this year thanks to Le Video. I would have watched more but my spinal stenosis had its way with my back again, making me immobile for a few months. As a result, the jaunt out to Le Video, separated from my Inner Richmond neighborhood by Golden Gate Park, was a painful excursion. During this time, I had to default on the 5 DVDs a month allotted through my paid subscription, a subscription I committed to in hopes of keeping Le Video going in these less than welcoming economic times for businesses grounded in the material world, I knew I’d come back to Le Video once my body allowed. I saw Le Video’s library as something worth paying for even when I wasn’t taking advantage of its resources regularly.
Like a DJ, I find digging in the stacks a more pleasurable means of stumbling upon media known and unknown than clicking on links found on the internet. I knew I’d eventually want to watch Punch, Lee Han’s 2011 film that featured Jasmine Lee, the actress who became the first Filipina and naturalized South Korean to become a member of South Korea’s National Assembly. I knew I’d likely find the DVD in the drawers at Le Video. I was right and I rented it. A movie I wasn’t aware I wanted to watch was Mystery Train. No, not the Jim Jarmusch film. I knew about that one. No, this Mystery Train was boarded under Japanese colonization, directed by Seo Gwang-je in 1938. All of the Korean titles I’ve seen under Japanese occupation, most recently Ahn Cheol-yeong’s Fisherman’s Fire (1938), have been thanks to Le Video’s library. Le Video was also a place to go and find titles I’d only recently learned about. When I read Ben Slater’s piece on Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack (1979) in World Film Locations: Singapore (2014; edited by Lorenzo Codelli), I knew Le Video would have a copy ready for me to check out. It did. I watched it after a MUNI light-rail train to and a bus ride home from Le Video in search of the title. And its this active journey to acquire a rental before passively watching, that involved my body moving through my city, that makes the film more memorable in my mind. A psychogeography vastly greater in impact than mouse clicks, I found better living outside circuitry.
I have a friend who has had an idea for a New Yorker cartoon ever since the rise of Amazon. Two people are walking by an independent bookstore where they see a sign on the window announcing the bookstore will be closing. The one character says to the other, ‘Aw, that’s sad. I love that bookstore! I haven’t been there in ages.’ This single frame imagined cartoon underscores the capital lost in the material world to the virtual world. The anchors of neighborhood identity, such as bookstores and video stores, struggle more when they lose customers to online retailers coupled with rising rents in vibrant cities. Of course, independent bookstores and video stores were part of what made these cities vibrant to begin with. We can’t live on restaurants and nail salons alone. Our shopping districts need a diverse line-up just like our viewing schedule does. Thankfully, the death of the independent bookstore has been overstated. Le Video was able to survive a little while longer thanks to the willingness of a San Francisco institution, Green Apple Books. Green Apple opened a new Inner Sunset branch in the lower half of the space that Le Video previously rented, cutting Le Video’s rent helped, but not enough. The 44 O’Shaughnessy bus line that begins and ends its crosstown route in the Inner Richmond has a stop in front of both Green Apple Books locations, leading me to now call the 44 the Apples to Apples line.
DVD rental stores haven’t been able to maintain the foothold some independent bookstores have in the face of shopping at a distance through clicks rather than at an intimate level of perusing the stacks. Unlike my friend’s imagined New Yorker cartoon, I can say I did my part. I loved that DVD store! And I showed Le Video my commitment through my paid subscription and by constantly patronizing it. When I said goodbye to one of the clerks during the final week, I was delighted to hear him say to me as he shook my hand, ‘You were always nice.’
Le Video was my preferred research library. Its vast Asian cinema collection included a robust drawer of South Korean selections. I was able to write about the first South Korean film directed by a woman, The Widow (1955) by Park Nam-ok, for Koreanfilm.org thanks to Le Video. I was able to checkout Han Hyeong-mo’s The Female Boss (1959) to acquire greater context for Han’s work when presenting his melodrama classic, Madame Freedom (1956) at Yerba Buena’s Center for the Arts the summer of 2014. I could familiarize myself with crappy South Korean films like Heo In-moo’s Little Black Dress (2011) and Kim Jung-hwan’s Penny Pinchers (2011) without having to waste a full-price DVD purchase – to know a national cinema, you have to know its detritus as much as its gems. And when I’d finished watching the few films from Kazakhstan online at Fandor, I could watch a few more from Le Video’s collection. Le Video helped me better manage my own DVD collection, my own limited storage in a tiny San Francisco apartment, helping me try out which DVDs I would eventually buy and which I hope to never have to watch again.
I liked the convenience and intimacy of Le Video. I liked the geographic memories of renting, moving through my city via my feet or public transit. You didn’t have to be as quiet as at a library. You could talk at Le Video. You could voice your joy at what you found. You could announce your excitement about what you just watched or what you were planning to bring home. Tweeting #NowWatching doesn’t have the same rush of looking a fellow cinephile in the eyes and knowing they understand what it is like to be anxious to watch a film you’ve been searching for.
One of the folks working at the counter once told me he’d recommended Hong Sangsoo’s The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996) to someone. (If I recall correctly, it was his mother). He mentioned that I was pull-quoted on the DVD cover. I did not know this. I went into the stacks and took a picture of the long pull quote. Even with my last name getting a bit of an Ellis Island treatment with my final ‘L’ cut off, I was delighted to know my words and my (mis-spelled) name fell onto the cover of the debut DVD by one of my favorite directors. That same employee let me know on another day that Lee Man-hee’s Black Hair from 1964 was showing at the SF Noir City film festival at the Roxie Theater, something I was unaware of since paper programs aren’t as prevalent at coffeehouses these days thanks again to the damn internet. (Yes, and we must acknowledge the irony that I am writing about all this on the ‘damn internet.’ I am not denying what’s gained while I write about what might be lost.) I would have kicked myself for days had I missed that screening.
Perhaps it is appropriate that the final DVD I watched from Le Video was Lee Man-hee’s The Road to Sampo (1975), a road movie following three lonely people as they trek through the snow of the South Korean peninsula that, since you can’t travel north, acts as an island. I found myself relating to three people trying to find their place in the peninsula more than I might if it wasn’t for Le Video closing up shop for good. I felt alone. I felt like I couldn’t travel towards my north in my own peninsula, which in San Francisco would be west.
Yet the story might not end there. The rumors that the Le Video library were sold to the new Alamo Drafthouse on Mission Street in San Francisco turned out to be true. Alamo Drafthouse will be working with another local DVD store in San Francisco. I might still get to send moving pictures through my moving body, just in a different neighborhood requiring a different journey in which to embed movie memories. (This time the trip will involve BART trains.) Looks like I will get to continue sifting through the vast library for hidden gems and jewels fully in view.
Perhaps we can rewind? Perhaps we haven’t gone too far?