The New York Asian Film Festival has been a major highlight of the movie calendar since it first launched in 2002, but celebrating this annual orgy of contemporary Asian cinema has always felt a bit like bragging about an experience that most people out there will never get to have. Not only is NYAFF the country’s best-curated and most fearless showcase of new films from Japan to Indonesia and all points in between, but most of these great films never find more permanent homes in the United States (though anyone willing to sift through the recesses of Amazon Prime or explore niche-driven streaming platforms like AsianCrush and Rakuten might find some titles that haven’t completely fallen through the cracks).
Miss a masterpiece like Li Wu’s “Buddha Mountain” or Clement Cheng and Derek Kwok’s “Gallants” and you may never have a chance to see it again; miss the international premiere of Thai sensation “Bad Genius” and you might be stuck waiting for the American remake. But this year, things are different.
For the first (and possibly last) time in its history, NYAFF is de-emphasizing the “New York” part of its name and opening itself up to adventurous movie lovers across the entire country with a virtual festival hosted by Smart Cinema USA. Between August 28 and September 12, the entire NYAFF 2020 program will be available to stream to anyone with an American IP address. It was the only way forward for an event that’s never felt more needed than it does now.
As the festival’s executive director Samuel Jamier put it earlier this summer: “We need to adapt and change accordingly since it’s now clear the U.S. won’t follow models of governance that would make the reopening of theaters safe and possible.”
And while there’s never a good time for a film festival to have to recalibrate its identity in the wake of a global pandemic that has feasted on the incompetence of the American government, it seems like far-flung audiences are in for a treat, as NYAFF’s 2020 lineup is full of tantalizing films. This year’s centerpiece — the directorial debut of beloved Japanese actor Odagiri Joe — has to be considered chief among them, and not only because “They Say Nothing Stays the Same” was shot by the great Christopher Doyle. Other Japanese highlights include Otomo Keishi’s “Beneath the Shadow” and “Dancing Mary” from the ever-unique Sabu.
Seizing the momentum of “Parasite” winning Best Picture, NYAFF 2020’s South Korean selections span from arthouse to grindhouse, including Yoon Dan-bi’s Rotterdam breakout “Moving On,” Choi Yun-tae’s crowd-pleasing drama “Baseball Girl,” and Choi Won-sub’s explosive “Hitman: Agent Jun.” Hong Kong is represented with the American premiere of Johnnie To’s “Chasing Dream” (among a vast panorama of other movies) — no filmmaker better embodies the freewheeling spirit of this festival, and To’s first movie in four years lives up to that claim.
Taiwan is bringing seven titles to the program, including Shih Li’s meditative drama “Wild Sparrow” and Kat Pin-chuan’s curiously titled “The Gangs, the Oscars, and the Walking Dead.” Shot in Malaysia, Layla Zhuqing Li’s bullying thriller “Victim(s)” recalls past NYAFF standouts like “Confessions,” while Rae Red’s “The Girl and the Gun” — about a department store saleslady whose life is changed by the discovery of a pistol her doorstep — brings some overdue attention to Filipino cinema in the festival’s “opening night” slot. Bhutan, Indonesia, and Kazakhstan each have a movie in the mix as well, which will help to offset an unusually muted selection from China, which surely has more to do with that country’s government than it does NYAFF’s programming.
All told, 51 movies will be playing at the festival this year. Individual tickets are now on sale, as is a VIP All Access Pass that will allow you to watch the entire lineup. Check out the trailer for NYAFF 2020 below.