Steven Soderbergh had just turned 26 in January of 1989 when he hand-carried a "wet print" of his first feature film, "sex, lies and videotape," on a plane to Salt Lake City.

He was headed for the Sundance Film Festival (then known as the United States Film Festival) in Park City, where his film was one of 17 accepted in the dramatic competition."It was OK, the first reaction was pretty good," Soderbergh remembered in a telephone interview. "There were four screenings and they got increasingly more exiting for me. The response became more and more obvious. People sat through it, they seemed to like it. It was good. I felt like we weathered it. We hadn't embarrassed ourselves. And it was obvious by the end of the week, by the end of the festival, that my professional life had completely turned around."

Soderbergh's picture won the Audience Award that year, which means it was voted the most popular by festivalgoers. If that wasn't enough, the following May he took "sex, lies and videotape" to the most prestigious film festival in the world, the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the top prize, the Palme d'Or, as well as the best actor award for James Spader.

"Frankly, it was a little out of proportion in relation to the film, which had pretty modest aspirations," Soderbergh says now. "And it succeeds in those modest aspirations. But I couldn't quite fathom the almost across-the-board praise and commercial acceptance. None of us were anticipating anything like that."

Soderbergh returned to Park City in 1990, as a member of the dramatic competition jury, and this year he's back again, to present his second film, "Kafka," as a premiere on Saturday, Jan. 18, and Sunday, Jan. 19.

"Kafka," set in 1919 Prague, is an atmospheric, fictional tale about the writer Franz Kafka. But Soderbergh emphasizes that it is in no way meant to be biographical. "It's a mystery-thriller. It's not a high-brow exercise. And it's important that people know that. This isn't an exam. There are some good laughs and scares and anybody can follow it. There are no prerequisites."

But he also has no illusions about its potential to reach a mass audience. "I don't think it'll ever match `sex, lies.' `Kafka' is not a film with ready-made, external commercial devices that are going to guarantee its success, and I have to go out there and make some noise."

That Soderbergh was able to make "Kafka" at all, with its offbeat sensibilities and its black-and-white cinematography (there's a color sequence toward the end), says much for the respect accorded his first success. But what really hit him was how it opened doors to top-of-the-line actors.

"The ability, on `Kafka,' to at least get to the desired actor without any barriers being put up, was a relief. In this case I got to work with so many people whose work I admired - and I tried not to think too much about the potential intimidation factor. As it turned out, they were all extremely professional and eager to be directed."

Those professionals included Alec Guinness, Theresa Russell, Joel Grey and, in the title role, Jeremy Irons, who had just won thebest-actor Oscar for "Reversal of Fortune."

"Jeremy Irons was my first choice, and again I was lucky. He'd seen `sex, lies' and liked it, and I called him up and he was available and interested and willing to accept a lot less (money) than he normally gets."

"Kafka" begins its commercial run in theaters around the country Feb. 7.

As for the festival, and its emphasis on independent film, Soderbergh says, "I worry that `sex, lies' has made it much more business-oriented than it was initially. It increased the visibility and viability of a certain kind of independent film. As a result, more films that in the festival already have a distributor when they enter. That's great for those films, but the festival role, as a place to present a film that needs help, that needs distribution, that needs to find an audience has been reduced. I don't know what the answer is to that."