Unquestionably America’s biggest and best-curated showcase of contemporary Asian cinema (with a choice handful of classics sprinkled into the mix for good measure), the New York Asian Film Festival has become a cherished institution among local cinephiles eager for a peek at the annual plethora of killer movies that may never screen again in the United States. If you want to see masterpieces like Li Wu’s “Buddha Mountain,” giddy kung fu throwbacks like Clement Cheng and Derek Kwok’s “Gallants,” or a programmer dress up as a cow to moo-ingly introduce a Huang Bo tragicomedy about a man and his livestock, NYAFF has long been the best game in town.
Last year, in the face of a pandemic and the rising swell of anti-Asian violence that came with it, NYAFF took bold steps to ensure that locked-down American film-lovers would still be able to celebrate the latest and greatest from the far side of the world. Weeks before other festivals followed suit, NYAFF pivoted to a virtual format that allowed people all over this country to experience a wild array of much-anticipated hits (Johnnie To’s “Chasing Dream”), unexpected crowd-pleasers (Choi Yoon-tae’s “Baseball Girl”), and boundary-pushing indies (Liao Ming-yi’s eerily prescient “iWeirDO”) along with dozens of other movies from Bhutan to Vietnam and all spots on the alphabet in between.
It was meant to be a one-time deal — the silver lining around a brutal summer movie season — but the pandemic continues to plague New York City as we enter the dog days of 2021, and its attendant strains of racism have only gotten worse. To the surprise of no one, NYAFF has responded to these challenges with the kind of gung-ho fearlessness that has always characterized its programming.
Pivoting to a hybrid format that will see almost half of the festival’s 60-film virtual cinema lineup screen at Lincoln Center for those lucky enough to attend in person, NYAFF 2021 will roar to life with two world premieres, 29 North American premieres, coast-to-coast online access, and some very special treats for the hometown crowd (including a free outdoor screening of Raymond Lee’s wuxia classic “Dragon Inn AKA New Dragon Gate Inn” on August 11).
Longtime NYAFF attendees will know better than to miss the world premiere of Yu Irie’s “Ninja Girl,” a subversive and socially conscious spy thriller that promises to pack the same punch as the director’s scrappy 2010 favorite “8000 Miles.” Other major highlights include lyrical COVID-19 meditations like the star-studded “All U Need Is Love” (which traps half of mainland China’s movie stars in a quarantined hotel) and Filipino director JP Habac’s “Here and There,” a wide variety of films directed by women (don’t miss Akiko Ohku’s “Hold Me Back,” a gentle romance about an office worker at war with her debilitating shyness), and documentaries like Jimmy Wan’s “Zero to Hero,” about Hong Kong Paralympic gold medalist So Wa Wai.
It’s worth noting that some of the higher-profile films in the selection will only be available to see in-person, but only the big screen could do proper justice to the likes of Lee Joon-ik’s sweeping black-and-white epic “The Book of Fish,” or reward the seven years of painstaking work required for Takahide Hori to assemble his stop-motion opus “Junk Head.”
Check out the trailer for this year’s festival below, and visit the New York Asian Film Festival’s website for ticket information and a look at the full lineup.
The New York Asian Film Festival is co-presented by the New York Asian Film Foundation and Film at Lincoln Center, and takes place from August 6 – 22, 2021 at FLC’s Walter Reade Theater (165 West 65th Street) and in the FLC Virtual Cinema, and from August 9 – 22 at SVA Theatre (333 West 23rd Street).