AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND — Sam Neill will star in “Perfect Strangers,” his first pic in his native New Zealand since “The Piano.”

“Strangers,” the fourth feature of helmer Gaylene Preston, is a psychological thriller that starts shooting at the end of the month.

The project is the second to be developed with finance from the Film Production Fund, a $10 million cash injection made by the arts-friendly coalition government, which took office in late 1999.

The first was “Whale Rider,” directed by Niki Caro (“Memory and Desire”) from a novel by Maori author Witi Ihimaera; it’s now in post-production.

The New Zealand Film Commission, the television production fund New Zealand on Air and pubcaster TVNZ, have also chipped in and gap financing is being provided by Film Financial Services of Los Angeles.

Rachael Blake, Anthony LaPaglia’s illicit love interest in “Lantana” will star opposite Neill in “Strangers.”

Preston’s other three pics are “Mr. Wrong,” “Ruby and Rata” and “War Stories.”

Preston will direct her own screenplay, which she describes as “a blackly funny, deadly serious psycho-sexual thriller offering a new spin on falling in love”; she says she is “thrilled” at having signed the duo to play her “unconventional lovers.”

The record 40-strong Kiwi contingent at Cannes includes reps of Film New Zealand, which markets the country as an international production base, and the trade ministry Trade New Zealand, both seeking to exploit the country’s heightened international profile in the wake of the success of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”

That film helped convince the government of films’ potential for boosting the economy, and so it’s funded a small group of young filmmakers to attend the festival to promote their work. They include Andrew Bancroft (who won best short film at the Cannes Critics’ Week in 1996), Adam Larkin (whose debut feature “Aidiko Insane” is nearing completion) and producer Julian Arahanga.

Three NZ feature films are showing in the market. Harry Sinclair’s third feature, “Toy Love,” will have its market premiere with the director, producers and two of the stars in attendance. Also screening are the martial arts parody “Tongan Ninja,” the first feature from director Jason Stutter, and Christine Jeffs’ “Rain,” which has already sold to 19 countries and has just begun its theatrical release in the U.S.

The Cannes Cinephiles Festival de Cannes has also selected works by two prominent Maori filmmakers: Barry Barclay’s dramatized documentary “The Feathers of Peace” and Merata Mita’s mystical “Mauri” will screen alongside three Kiwi short pics: “Watermark,” “The French Doors” and “The Platform.”