Tinker Ticker: Tokyo Review

A competent if lugging political drama dressed up as an action movie.

Two disillusioned young men conspire to bomb their tormentors in South Korean director Kim Jung-hoon's directorial debut.

So it is that Tinker Ticker is bookended by explosions, but Kim Jung-hoon's directorial debut – made while he's still a student at the Korean Academy of Film Arts – is hardly as pyrotechnical as its premise suggests, or as manic as its Korean title ("Wild Dog") hints at. There's a lot of plotting and running around but blasts are at a premium; the film's two lead characters row among themselves much more than they are seen being ill-treated by those around them.

If one is to make Tinker Ticker title more like the espionage thriller it references, one should probably add Terror Talker: the tension here lies with the pair spewing fury about their circumstances, and their Faust-Mephisto relationship which eventually leads to the film's equivalent of Jekyll finally becoming Mr Hyde. A cross between Fight Club (minus the psychosis and physicality) and Death Note (the Japanese hit about a young man warped vigilantism through a deadly little black book), this low-budget production – which has since been picked up by South Korean major CJ Entertainment – will certainly resonate with angst-ridden young audiences seeking some on-screen subversion. The absence of recognizable villains getting their comeuppance with a bang, however, might probably diminish interest for those seeking for some genre-specific gratification.

But what if Kim's intention hasn't been about that all along? Assume, for example, that the film's title actually refers not to the assembling of an explosive device, but the adjustment of that ticking organ in the body – for tweaking is what the film's chief protagonist Jung-gu (Byun Yo-han) is seen to be doing. Eleven years after he blew up a brutal teacher's car apart to avenge for the abuse he meted out – a scene which makes up the film's pre-credit prologue – the young man has emerged meek and fickle, as he struggles to contend with the mockery he receives at job interviews. And even when he finally lands a position as a teaching assistant, he still has to swallow huge dollops of contempt and injustice going his way so as to make a living.

But the dark side of him has survived, with him continuing to secretly make bombs and then send them out to those answering his internet ad offering free devices. This clandestine self is soon reawakened when he meets Hyo-min (Park Jung-min), a rich kid who has broken ties with his family and has since styled himself as some kind of rebel, living in a cramped bedsit with Zapatista posters on the wall and citing Jean Baudrillaud to barrack a marketing studies lecturer (and Jung-gu's boss) for "bringing an end to humanity" by championing images over substance.

When Jung-gu discovers Hyo-min as among those who requested his bombs and, more importantly, the first to actually set one off, the self-styled "producer" (the handle he uses online) brings the listless boy onside with the idea of using him turning him into his detonator. Rather than moulding Hyo-min, however, Jung-gu soon discovers himself becoming slowly manipulated, as his new associate constantly provokes him to acknowledge "his true self" just as his subservience at work is finally paying dividends. In a case of monstrosity begets monstrosity, Jung-gu breaks when Hyo-min's extremes brings the law to his door and his career on the line.

With most of Jung-gu's tormentors turning out to be less wicked than they appear to be – call them cronyism with a human face, maybe – Tinker Ticker's binary seems to be an ideological battle within Jung-gu, with Hyo-win serving as the manifestation of that inner voice dragging him to become a one-man army against the shallow excess as championed by commodity-driven capitalism.

While certainly a valid approach, the film undermines itself by becoming too slow in getting into gear – not only when it is to be considered an action thriller (which it isn't really), but also a psychological drama about one man's inability to suppress his instincts. Jung-gu's frustration about the dominant greed-is-good ethos and Hyo-min's anarchistic wonders are undermined by flashes of brand names being placed on screen – it's perhaps an irony that Hyo-min's image-bashing diatribe is quickly followed by a close-up of a Samsung smartphone (which his limo-owning mother brought to him in school). Indeed, Kim Jung-hoon needs more time to fine-tune his aesthetics (which are competent this time round, with apt camerawork and tight editing pumping up a sometimes lugging narrative), his understanding of how the system works (the police would have been all over Jung-gu very early on given his previous) and social consciousness, but but Tinker Ticker is a sign of a filmmaker growing into form, who discovers and reveals the sense within the society of the spectacle.

Asian Future, Tokyo International Film Festival
Production Company: KAFA Films
Director: Kim Jung-hoon
Cast: Byun Yo-han, Park Jung-min
Producer: Kim Sung-eun
Director of Photography: Park Sung-hoon
International Sales: CJ Entertainment
In Korean
105 minutes