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(From L) British actress Carey Mulligan, US actor Oscar Isaac, US director Joel Coen and actors Justin Timberlake and Garrett Hedlund pose on May 19, 2013 as they arrive for the screening of the film “Inside Llewyn Davis” presented in Competition at the 66th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes. —AFP Photo
(From L) British actress Carey Mulligan, US actor Oscar Isaac, US director Joel Coen and actors Justin Timberlake and Garrett Hedlund pose on May 19, 2013 as they arrive for the screening of the film “Inside Llewyn Davis” presented in Competition at the 66th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes. —AFP Photo

CANNES: A blood-soaked vengeance tale from Japan drew the biggest boos in the race for the Cannes Film Festival's top prize on Monday, with critics savaging a “risible” parade of cliches.

Controversial Japanese director Takashi Miike unveiled “Shield of Straw” (Wara No Tate) about a nationwide bounty hunt for a child rapist who murders the seven-year-old granddaughter of a billionaire politician.

The man offers a one-billion-yen ($9.7-million) reward for the criminal's capture and killing. The offer touches off a frenzy in the country, sending hordes of would-be vigilantes on the chase for the murderer.

Fearing for his life, the pedophile turns himself in and a team of cops - a widower whose wife was killed by a drunk driver and a single mother - see it as their duty to protect him at all costs despite his vile crimes.

But they must fend off all manner of armed assailants - some driven by greed for the reward and others, crime victims themselves who feel let down by the system, by a desire for a delayed sense of justice.

The picture, one of 20 vying for the Palme d'Or award, got off to a promising start with impromptu applause for a spectacular ambush scene executed with military precision.

But reviewers said the film went off the rails during a bullet-train scene in which the cops deliver long speeches about their personal motivations and reflections on the moral quandary they face over risking their lives to guard a remorseless killer, only pausing to brutally dispatch blood-thirsty bounty-hunters.

British critic Geoff Andrew took to Twitter to deride “risibly overacted, overemphatic nonsense that constantly states the obvious cliche”.

Movie magazine CineVue posted a review within minutes giving the picture one star out of five and calling it a “stone-cold dud” while cult film watcher Electric Sheep said it went “down like a lead balloon”.

The Irish Times reviewer, however, had a few kind words for the “classy action sequences” and predicted a big-budget Hollywood remake.

“Few action movies have been so dedicated to the cause of liberal democracy and trial by jury. Shield of Straw is the anti-Dirty Harry,” it wrote, referring to the iconic Clint Eastwood franchise.

Miike, a remarkably prolific director whose work has been banned in some countries for excessive gore, lamented that the Japanese cinema industry was turning its back on what he called a proud tradition of blockbuster action movies.

“It's not the viewers who don't want to see these films, it's the professionals, the people who make films,” he told reporters.

“Some of the scenes, particularly the high-speed train, we weren't able to make in Japan so we did them in Taiwan,” he said, noting that Japanese authorities had objected on security grounds.

Miike admitted that his film was unlikely to capture the top prize when jury president Steven Spielberg announces the winner Sunday.

“I don't really think that this is a film that's made for the Palme d'Or but I'm happy a different class of film has been allowed in the official competition,” he said. “If the film can stimulate audiences I'd be delighted.”

A Japanese film has not won at Cannes since “The Eel” by Shohei Imamura in 1997, which was joint winner with Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry.

On the other hand, a Coen brothers comedy, a daring Chinese expose of exploitation and moral decay, and a divorce drama by an Iranian Oscar winner emerged as the breakout favourites as the Cannes Film Festival hit the halfway mark onTuesday.

Although incessant rain and chilly winds put a damper on the champagne-fuelled soirees in this French Riviera town, audiences have responded warmly to much of the selection so far.

In the dead heat for the Palme d'Or top prize to be awarded on Sunday by jury president Steven Spielberg, critics singled out international risk-takers and solid Hollywood craftsmanship.

Reviewer polls by British trade magazine Screen and Paris-based Film Francais showed Joel and Ethan Coen's latest picture “Inside Llewyn Davis” as a clear front-runner. The Coens, back in competition for the first time since their chilling 2007 drama “No Country for Old Men”, struck a lighter note with their portrait of a struggling 1960s folk singer.

Deemed a “minor” work from the prolific siblings, critics nevertheless embraced a crowd-pleaser that delivered laughs while carrying a formidable emotional undertow.

The New York Times deemed the picture “wonderful” while industry bible Variety called it “an original, highly emotional journey through Greenwich Village nightclubs, a bleak New York winter, and one man's fraught efforts to reconcile his life and his art”.

Just behind it in the rankings was China's “A Touch of Sin” (Tian Zhu Ding) by Jia Zhangke.

Jia boldly tests the Chinese censors with an ultraviolent tableau of four protagonists crushed by sleazy bureaucrats, petty humiliations and economic obstacles until they finally lash out.

London's Guardian compared Jia to masters of cinematic violence and vengeance such as Quentin Tarantino and Sergio Leone and said the film was “a stunning slap in the face from a previously-sedate director”.

Audiences also cheered an intricate patchwork family tale “The Past” (Le Passe) set in the Paris suburbs by Iranian Academy Award winner Asghar Farhadi.

Picking up themes from his last film “A Separation”, a global arthouse hit, Farhadi tells the story of an estranged Iranian-French couple who have a hard time letting go.

“Those who admired Farhadi's intense Tehran domestic drama 'A Separation' - one of the key movies of this decade so far - will find the same intimate sensibility and the same finely-wrought shifts in perspective at work in 'The Past',” Salon reviewer Andrew O'Hehir said.