BEFORE THE RAIN Starring Rade Serbedijza, Gregoire Colin. Directed by Milcho Manchevski. Category IIB. Broadway Cinematheque. This Macedonia production will be hard to beat as the best film to open in Hong Kong in 1997. Like Underground by Serbian director Emir Kusturica, Before The Rain seeks to explain the brutal conflicts of the former Yugoslavia by looking at the national character of its inhabitants and the racial tensions that once earned the Balkans the label 'tinderbox of Europe'. There is another similarity, too. As with Kusturica's film, Before The Rain is stylistically a bravura piece of film-making, playing a simple but effective game with time to emphasise the cyclical nature of the conflict. It is set in Macedonia, the southern Republic which unlike its northern neighbours, has not erupted in mass violence. But that is not to say there is no conflict. Villages inhabited by ethnic Albanians who migrated from across the border are engaged in a cold war with the native Macedonians, tensions being exacerbated by religious differences - the Albanians are Muslim, the Macedonians, Christian. First-time director Milcho Manchevski, a Macedonian, focuses on the self-perpetuating nature of ethnic hatred, painting a terrifying picture of fathers killing daughters and friends murdering friends in the name of racial purity. Before The Rain is in three parts. The first is set against the beautiful rolling hills and star-studded skies of Macedonia; the second, in London; and the third in Macedonia where it all began, bringing the tale full circle. It is a clever device: even as we move forward we eventually find ourselves back to where we started. Part one, Words, is about a mute Macedonian priest, Kiri, who finds an Albanian woman in his room, hiding from a Macedonian mob out to avenge the death of one of their number. He renounces his vows to help her, but their relationship falls foul of vicious racism. The backdrop of a Greek Orthodox monastery, which seems to have remained unchanged since the Middle Ages, reinforces wonderfully the timeless message of Manchevski's film. The arrival of the lynch mob, bristling with machine guns and burning with righteous rage, quickly sets the tone for what follows: their reply to the monks' plea for forgiveness and compassion is the simple refrain, 'an eye for an eye'. In Faces, set in London, we meet the disillusioned photojournalist Aleksander and his lover Ann, who is trying to escape from her dull marriage. Living in London, the Yugoslav conflict seems a world away at first. But slowly the war makes itself felt, finally bursting into their lives in the form of a bizarre shoot-out in a restaurant. Part three, Rain, takes us back to the villages of Macedonia as Aleksander returns to his old home. He is fed up with trying to maintain the detachment his job as a photojournalist requires; he has been documenting the war in Bosnia and feels he should try to help the situation. As a cosmopolitan returnee, he hopes to skirt the growing racial tensions between the Albanians and the Macedonians, but is caught tightly in the grip of their ignorance and hatred. What is clear is that reason - and even politics - plays little part in the violence of the region. Over the years, racial hatred has become so ingrained in the people, it is as natural as eating or breathing. 'It's time to revenge for five centuries of our blood,' cries one man before the killing. As Aleksander finds out, there is very little room for discussion with attitudes like that. Hate and vengeance is a vicious cycle, which the circular structure of the film enhances. But for all the brooding violence of this brilliant debut, there is a small ray of hope. Manchevski, who made the film in 1994, said he chose the title Before The Rain as he wanted to express the edgy, irrational feeling that overcame people before a downpour. Well, it is already 1997 and although the tensions in Macedonia have probably not been resolved, there has not been a storm. Yet.