MOVIE buffs who dare enter the realm of obscure, or even disturbing cinema may find some of the films on offer at this year's Hongkong International Film Festival more off-beat and close to the edge than ever. Not necessarily controversial in nature, but definitely miles from mainstream film culture, the category introduced this year and aptly dubbed ''The Zone'', is a collection of ''edge'' films made in the 90s which aim to provoke. To the delight of the Urban Council - it runs the festival - these fringe productions from Germany, Australia, Japan, Canada and Russia, are already proving a draw, judging by the flood of postal and counter bookings. ''A total of 9,500 tickets have been sold by postal booking alone this year, a marked increase from last year's sales figure of 6,900 tickets,'' said an Urban Council spokeswoman this week. ''And the demand for tickets is spread evenly among all 13 categories of films . . . No one category has been singled out as more popular.'' The festival, which started yesterday and continues until April 23, is the 17th. The 180 films from 30 countires have been assembled at a cost of $4.2 million to the public. But beware: ''The Zone'' may not be everyone's cup of tea. ''This category is intended to challenge film festival-goers, the small marginal audience which is bored by commercial films and wants to see more demanding and strange films,'' said Mr Li Cheuk-to, HKIFF programme co-ordinator. ''And there are always people who want to take the risk in watching these productions.'' Of the eight films from ''The Zone'' Romper Stomper and The Second Circle, have both been shown in other film festivals and received critical reviews. Directed by Geoffrey Wright, the Australian production is ''an utterly ugly story of Melbourne skinheads brutalising the city's Vietnamese community''. It has courted controversy everywhere it has been seen. Critics have already called it ''genuinely appalling'', not only for its graphic depiction violence, but also for its problematic politics and its refusal to pass moral judgement on its hateful characters. And hardly a surprise, this film has already been given a Category III classification. The Second Circle, is directed by Aleksandr Sokhurov. The entire 92 minutes takes place in a flat with little sound, dialogue and action. BUT, according to critics, despite its simplicity, this film is a sad tale of decay, death and redemption, and an intense metaphor of the USSR before its disintegration. The other films on offer include Canada's Careful, Germany's Passages, Japan's I've Heard the Ammonite Murmur and The Room, and Russia's The Chekist and The Stone. Mr Li, also a local film critic, said the introduction of this new category was meant to give the local audience a wider and more varied choice. ''We have always thought that the old categorisation was just a geographical division; Europe, Hongkong, Asia, America . . . and that is not good enough,'' he said. ''So we looked at other similar festivals and they have more [film] categories and give the audience a better choice. In fact, our idea of having a category on edge films came from the Montreal Film Festival.'' Mr Li doesn't believe it's necessary to enjoy such films. Sitting through an ''edge'' film from beginning to end, he says, may not be a pleasant experience, but the experience itself is worth it. ''There are also a minority of directors or those involved in the creative side of film production who may come to see these films for inspiration,'' Mr Li said. One local film director, who does not want to be named, thinks ''edge'' movies can offer an alternative to Hongkong's usual commercial fare. But she has doubts that they'll find much popularity here. ''A majority of Hongkong people do not go to movies to get upset. Why should they bother about social problems? Unless the film has included issues close to their heart like immigration in the 80s, going to movies is a form of entertainment for the public,'' she said. ''Besides, Hongkong film makers are there to make money. They are not there to preach or do charity.'' Apart from ''The Zone'', two other new categories in this year's HKIFF are the ''Declaration of American Independents'' and ''Truth or Dare: Documentaries East and West''. The former include films which are ''independent from the Hollywood system'' like The Crying Game which picked up an Oscar for the Best Original Screenplay. ''Truth or Dare'' is a collection of 12 documentaries dealing with issues ranging from the mass media, China's rock'n'roll music, Tibetan Holy Land, to war crimes and environmental protection. ''Some of these are like home videos and cost as little as US$7,000 (HK$54,000) like El Mariachi. Some of these films may take years to complete because the director may start shooting without knowing what will be the ending,'' said Mr Li. Germany's documentary Liberators Take Liberties, and The Living End and Reservoir Dogs of the American independents category are classified as Category III. The festival also includes productions from this year's Hongkong Independent Short Film Competition organised by the Urban Council to promote local, non-commercial film making. Tickets for all films are priced at $38 with half-price tickets for students and senior citizens. An HKIFF handbook with details is available at all Urbtix outlets. Enquiries, 734-2903.