THE critics and programmers who assembled this year's New York Film Festival - which is always designed to showcase quality, not quantity - have done a thorough job of sifting world cinema for major achievements and unexpected discoveries. Their search has confirmed what filmfests earlier in 1993 have indicated: Britain and China are two of the most exciting places on the globe today for productions that reflect realities of their own homelands while also capturing insights of more far-reaching interest.
British movies screened in the highly regarded Lincoln Center event tended to be intimate in their stories and imposing in the messages and questions they presented. None was more engaging than Raining Stones, directed by Ken Loach, a filmmaker known for his social conscience in addition to his cinematic skills.
Loach's wish to educate as well as entertain his audiences has led him to didactic and artificial work at times, as in his recent ``Hidden Agenda,'' about violence and deception in contemporary Irish politics. At his best, though, he has the ability to discuss thorny social and cultural issues through stories of genuine emotional appeal. ``Raining Stones'' finds him at the peak of his powers.
The hero is Bob, a working-class man with no work available to provide him with a living wage. He tries a number of schemes and scams designed to bring in a few pounds, but nothing he can devise is profitable enough to solve the poignant problem looming in his immediate future: His daughter's first communion is coming up, and he's determined to buy her a new dress for the occasion.
Everyone assures him that a new dress isn't necessary; lots of people face this sort of dilemma nowadays, and nobody's eyebrows will be raised if his daughter makes do with a hand-me-down. Bob has his pride, however, and it's as fixed as it is ferocious. Before long his problem of domestic finance becomes a problem of personal safety, as he gets involved with a loan shark in a desperate attempt to accomplish his goal.
What makes ``Raining Stones'' a remarkable movie is partly its deceptively simple story and partly Loach's sensitive treatment of it, which turns a small-scale crisis into a human drama of enormous resonance - and social import - as one realizes that Bob's difficulty is a microcosm of the large economic dysfunctions of Britain and other nations.
Rarely have the personal and the political been joined so seamlessly in a recent film. Loach and his screenwriter, Jim Allen, deserve tremendous credit for bringing it off. And their film deserves a worldwide audience.
Another unusual and important British film shown at the New York festival was Mike Leigh's scathing Naked, the story of an educated but unemployed young man whose lack of meaningful opportunity has warped his sense of dignity and decency beyond repair. Winner of the Cannes festival's best-director prize for Leigh and best-actor prize for star David Thewlis, it is due in American theaters late this year.
AND special mention must go to Blue, directed by Derek Jarman, whose whimsical portrait film ``Wittgenstein'' recently opened on US screens. Jarman's streak of avant-garde experimentalism has been visible in many previous movies, such as ``The Last of England'' and ``The Garden,'' but never has he veered so far from convention as in his new picture - which has no pictures, only a rich blue color-field that fills the screen for the film's entire 75 minutes.
This is meant to symbolize the subject of the film, which is the sadness or ``blues'' that Jarman feels over the travails of people with AIDS and the lack of vision (literal and figurative) connected with this. These matters, including a poignant account of his own illness, are explored with imagination and compassion on the densely constructed soundtrack. ``Blue'' is a sad movie, but ultimately a positive and life-affirming one.
China's contributions to the festival included Farewell My Concubine, a superbly cinematic study of modern Chinese history as seen through the eyes of two opera stars. Since it shared the top prize at Cannes and is now opening on the American theater circuit, many filmgoers had heard about it and were eagerly looking forward to it. Advance word had also filtered into New York about The Puppetmaster, a brilliantly filmed epic by Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien about the experiences of a renowned puppeteer.
So the big Chinese-language surprise at Lincoln Center was another movie: The Blue Kite, by Tian Zhuangzhuang, whose earlier ``Horse Thief'' is a masterpiece of allusive, contemplative cinema. ``The Blue Kite'' is quite different, telling three interrelated stories about members of a Chinese family caught in the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution, when people considered too Westernized, intellectual, or simply different were singled out for harsh ``corrective'' treatment.
``The Blue Kite'' is not consistently gripping, but it is splendidly successful at fusing issues of home, family, community, and nation into a visually and emotionally striking whole.
* The New York Film Festival continues through Oct. 14.