NEW York plays a special role in United States film distribution, serving as a port of entry for most non-American productions - which may never play elsewhere in the US if they are poorly reviewed here, but can receive a vigorous send-off to the rest of the country if critics and audiences are enthusiastic.
An unusual number of Asian films are testing the American waters in New York this season, including three in the New York Film Festival:
* ``The Puppetmaster,'' a Taiwanese production, directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien, chronicles the life of a master puppeteer who pursues his art despite personal and political upheavals. Hou has a splendid gift for shaping cinematic time and space, and this intimate epic ranks with his most accessible works.
* ``The Blue Kite,'' a Hong Kong-Chinese production, directed by Tian Zuangzuang, focuses on a mother and son embroiled in sociopolitical strife during the 1950s and '60s. Tian's earlier drama ``The Horse Thief'' stands with the great masterpieces of recent Chinese cinema.
* ``Farewell My Concubine,'' a Hong Kong-Chinese production, directed by Chen Kaige, traces 60 years of Chinese history through the story of two opera stars.
TAIWANESE films are spotlighted in a series called ``Made in Taiwan: Ten Years of an Emerging Cinema,'' presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Attractions include:
* ``A Brighter Summer Day,'' directed by Edward Yang. A study of Taiwan in the '50s, based on an actual murder case involving a 14-year-old boy and his girlfriend. Named after a phrase in an Elvis Presley song, the film is rigorous, demanding, and sometimes quite vivid.
* ``City of Sadness,'' directed by Hou. A drawn-out family drama with strong historical overtones. Less resonant than most of Hou's films.
* ``Dust of Angels,'' directed by Hsu Hsiao-ming. A crime story about young hoodlums. Energetic but scattered.
* ``Daughter of the Nile,'' directed by Hou. Urban drama centering on a teenage girl with a taste for pop culture. Hou isn't satisfied with how this movie turned out, but it ranks with his most moving achievements.
Milestone Film & Video is releasing a South Korean masterpiece called ``Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?'' across the US after a premiere at the Walter Reade Theater here. The film looks at issues of love and faith through the story of a young man whose life becomes intertwined with an aging Buddhist monk and an orphan boy.
Radiantly directed by Bae Yong-Kyun, the movie unfolds at a slow pace but entrances the eye with its visual beauty and the mind with its sense of wonder at the grand enigmas of human experience.