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. Starting today and continuing until September 12, the NYAFF 2020 program will be available to stream to anyone with an American IP address (though a small handful of titles will be restricted to people in the continental United States, and in some cases only those in the state of New York — full details about availability and screening windows can be found here.
And you’d be wise to take NYAFF up on that offer, either on an à la carte basis or by investing in an all-access pass, as this year’s 51-film lineup more than lives up to the festival’s usual standards. From ultra-topical social media thrillers like Layla Zhuqing Ji’s “Victim(s)” to animated wonders like Cho Kyung-hun’s “Beauty Water,” a lovelorn riff on “The Leftovers” led by mega-star Huang Bo (pictured above), and whatever madness the ever-reliable Sabu has to show off with this year’s “Dancing Mary,” the 2020 slate is so deep and diverse that our annual rundown of festival highlights barely scratches the surface. Bhutan, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and South Korea are all represented in a cinematic celebration that runs the gamut from major blockbusters to a micro-budget indie you’d never guess was shot on an iPhone.
Here are five must-see highlights from NYAFF 2020. Those looking for a more comprehensive or traditional fest experience would be strongly advised to consult the “virtual schedule” the programmers have put together.