"TORA-SAN GOES NORTH" was a wonderful surprise to this jaded movie critic, a gentle, amiable, low-key Japanese comedy that is the 38th in a popular film series, which has offered Japanese moviegoers roughly two pictures a year for the past 20 years. (There are actually 40 movies in the series now, that milestone having been reached late last year.)

The reason No. 38 is getting a bit wider exposure has more to do with this specific film's co-star - internationally renowned actor Toshiro Mifune _ than anything inherent to the film itself.

And when you hear that you are going to see a sequel, what essentially amounts to "Tora-san XXXVIII," you have to wonder what you're in for. I can imagine "Police Academy XXXVIII," but I don't want to think about it too much.

So imagine my pleasant surprise to find "Tora-san Goes North" a thoroughly delightful film, loaded with heart and a sweetness that is all too lacking in contemporary American films.

The "Tora-san" series apparently has the main character, Tora-san (Kiyoshi Atsumi) - or, by his full name, Mr. Torajiro - wandering around Japan, meddling in other people's lives, whose stories make up the bulk of each film.

Torajiro himself is an affable, but fairly lazy gadabout who tends to drive his family nuts. But he tends to endear himself to others, and they can't understand why his immediate relatives complain about him.

In "Tora-san Goes North," Torajiro does just as the title says, after first dropping in on his family in Tokyo. When he has sufficiently worn out his welcome, Torajiro heads for a northern province where he encounters a surly businessman named Junkichi (Mifune), a widower whose communication skills are - to understate - not his strongest quality. Nonetheless, he invites Torajiro to stay with him, and it isn't long before Torajiro finds himself in the middle of the social affairs of this small fishing village.

Eventually, Junkichi's estranged daughter Rinko (the entrancing Keiko Takeshita), who married against his will, returns home, disgraced after her divorce and chagrined at admitting it to her father. She obviously loves him, but Junkichi just grunts. And before long, it's apparent Rinko may be falling in love with Torajiro himself, despite an obvious age difference.

Meanwhile, Junkichi is also rather brusque with Etsuko (Keiko Awaji), the woman in town who has been in love with him for some time, a lovely operator of a local diner. And this relationship sets up the film's most powerful and touching moment, a scene set during an impromptu barbecue where Torajiro coerces Junkichi into articulating his love for Etsuko, no easy task.

Not an awful lot happens in "Tora-san Goes North" in terms of plot development or action. But what really counts in a movie is how you feel about the characters and the choices they make. That is what makes the difference here, and "Tora-san Goes North" has more heart than any film I've seen in some time.

As such it is highly recommended, despite its being scheduled to be shown only once.

"Tora-san Goes North" kicks off the Asian Film Festival, which is presenting other Asian films through April 29th on Fridays, Saturdays and some Wednesdays at the university, the Salt Lake Community College and the Salt Lake City Public Library. Scheduled are pictures from China, Thailand, Cambodia, India, Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea and the Philippines. For further specific information, phone 486-5987.

"A SUNDAY IN HELL" offers more opportunities for viewing, with matinee and evening showings Friday and Saturday.

This is an up-close and personal documentary, a harrowing look at the French marathon bicycle race that has been held between Paris and Roubaix each year since 1896 _ this film following the 1976 race.

"A Sunday in Hell," so named because that is what the last leg of the race _ a stretch of treacherous cobblestone hills - is called, is a French documentary, but instead of subtitles a British voice-over narration has been dubbed in.

That's fine for much of the film, though there are plenty of unanswered questions that remain when it's over, but for certain segments it becomes rather annoying. Long conversations are held on camera between various players in this real-life drama, but they become merely tedious and tiring to those of us who are not fluent in French.

Still, the racing footage - particularly when the race reaches "hell" - is most exhilarating and will have you on the edge of your seat. But the film's full two-hour length could have easily been trimmed if some of the unintelligible conversations had been eliminated.

For further information on "A Sunday in Hell" phone the Media Center, 534-1158.