`THE CUTTING EDGE'' is back, and sharper than ever. If you like a touch of adventure in your moviegoing, you may already know about this unusual film series. It made its debut last year with a program of six international movies aimed at broadening the horizons of American audiences.
Its new edition, which is on a 30-city tour, again comprises half-a-dozen pictures chosen for variety as well as quality. They aren't all equally pleasing, but it's hard to imagine a more diverse and unpredictable batch of movies.
In its second outing, ``The Cutting Edge'' has lost none of its ambition - or its willingness to take chances on cinema that's highly unconventional.
A good example is ``Dust in the Wind,'' a drama from Taiwan by the gifted filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien, who specializes in quiet family stories. The main characters are a young man and woman who'd like to finish high school and get married, but don't have enough money to support themselves. So they move from their small town to the city of Taipei, where life turns out to be no easier for them.
What's unusual in this gentle film is not the story but the style, which is grounded in slow, deep-focus shots. The images are so quiet and still they seem radically different from Hollywood's hectic movies, and they're as bittersweet and atmospheric as they are beautiful to look at.
There's nothing quite like Mr. Hou's approach in all of world cinema, except the highly regarded dramas of Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, whose work Hou discovered after his own career was well underway. In all his recent works, Hou has been consolidating his status as one of the world's most distinctive filmmakers. ``The Cutting Edge'' deserves thanks for making ``Dust in the Wind'' widely available after introducing his ``A Time to Live and a Time to Die'' last year.
Americans don't usually think of Taiwan as a movie-production center, although it has a small but active film industry. The same goes for some parts of the Soviet Union - such as Georgia, where Sergei Paradjanov has earned an international reputation, and Estonia, where Mark Soosaar makes his unusual documentaries.
``The Cutting Edge'' has explored this corner of the movie world and represents it this year with a Ukrainian film called ``The Eve of Ivan Kupalo,'' a rollicking fable with the look of a crowded tapestry and the feel of a Far Eastern fairy tale.
The story begins with a poor man's desire to marry a beautiful woman whose father wants a wealthy son-in-law. But the plot wanders into a labyrinth of twists and turns borrowed from Ukrainian folklore, and the freewheeling visual approach of director Yuri Illyenko has been likened to Marc Chagall's magical painting style - a comparison that's justified in terms of energy and invention if not overall brilliance.
EVEN more complex is ``The Jester,'' directed by Jose Alvaro Morais, a talented Portuguese filmmaker. The main character, Francisco, leads a theater group that's rehearsing a play about Portuguese history in the 12th century. We see much of this play in the film, and we also see dramatic situations involving Francisco off the stage - his efforts to leave Portugal for New York and a new life with his girlfriend, and the scheme of his friend Joao to raise money for the trip by smuggling arms. Inventively filmed and performed at a feverish pace, ``The Jester'' is a good indication of why some observers regard the current Portuguese film scene as one of the world's most exciting.
This year's ``Cutting Edge'' is rounded out by three more features. ``Macao'' is Clemens Klopfenstein's gentle Swiss film about a man who survives a plane crash. That is, he thinks he survives it, but as time passes he starts to wonder if he's still among the living after all.
French director Anne-Marie Mieville tells a more earthbound tale in ``My Favorite Story,'' about three women - from three generations of one family - each trying in a different way to carve out a fulfilling life.
And there's a truly experimental item on the menu: ``The Last of England,'' director Derek Jarman's weakly written but cinematically ferocious vision of what may be the end of the world, or at least of Western civilization. Annotating this movie for the New York Film Festival recently, I wrote that if avant-gardists Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage filmed a William S. Burroughs novel, it might look something like this apocalyptic British nightmare. From its unsparing rhythms to its sexually explicit imagery, it's definitely not for the faint-hearted.
The 1989 edition of ``The Cutting Edge'' begins this week at New York's Film Forum theater, and then goes on tour. Information on its itinerary is available from the IFC at 383 Lafayette Street, Suite 306, New York, NY 10003.