Written by: Fiona Underhill, CC2K Staff Writer
Movies have tried to take on the internet with varying degrees of success as far back as 1995’s The Net. These films are usually in the horror genre, such as Unfriended, and focus on the dark, negative influence of the web, especially on teenagers. Searching is a thriller and has darkness within it, however, it reveals all aspects of the internet and social media in a refreshingly judgement-free way.
Two years after the hashtag #StarringJohnCho went viral, drawing attention to the lack of Asian leading actors in mainstream Hollywood, we are now in #AsianAugust, and Searching joins Netflix’s To All the Boys I Loved Before and the smash-hit rom-com Crazy Rich Asians. No one is suggesting this means the problem is solved, but it feels as if we’re in a moment when it is finally being recognized that an Asian lead actor or an all-Asian cast can still mean box office success for your movie.
After a long career with over a hundred credits to his name, John Cho is having an interesting and eclectic few years, balancing blockbusters like Star Trek Beyond (2016) with quality indie fare such as Gemini (2017) and the sublime Columbus (2017), as well as plenty of television work. He gives the performance of a lifetime in Searching, with almost the entire film focused on close-ups of his face. He carries the emotional weight of the story singlehandedly. It is reminiscent of a tour-de-force performance like Tom Hardy’s in Locke and Cho demonstrates he is one of the finest actors working today. If there was any justice in the world, he would have been Oscar-nominated for Columbus, but let’s hope Searching is a further step towards him being recognized for the brilliant actor that he is.
Searching opens with an extremely efficient and economical montage showing the family life of the Kims – loving husband and wife, David Kim (John Cho) and Pamela Kim (Sara Sohn), with various actors playing their daughter Margot at different ages until she reaches the 16-year-old version played by Michelle La. This is mostly shown through home-movie footage of the first days of school and piano lessons until tragedy strikes and David is left as a struggling single father.
One of the aspects of modern social media this film captures well is messaging in real time, with all of its typos, mistakes and regrets. There are many times when David messages his daughter and goes to say something (a reference to her mother, for example), then changes his mind and deletes it before sending. Even in a one-to-one private message between father and daughter, there is still crafting and editing to present the version of yourself that you want to reveal. David is under the impression that he has a near-perfect daughter who has not let her home circumstances distract her from being a diligent AP student and piano player. This is until one night when she goes missing after attending a study group. The rest of the film involves David digging into his daughter on the internet and realizing he did not know her anywhere near as well as he thought.
Searching’s technical achievements cannot be over-stated. It blends the ‘gimmick’ of using cameras that exist in real spaces – webcams and CCTV – with a highly involving thriller, plus an emotional family story. Instead of the way it’s filmed being a distraction, it adds a layer of realism and authenticity.
Another facet of social media Searching explores is the public “grief wars” on Twitter and Facebook after someone is killed or goes missing. People who barely knew the person compete to make the tragedy about themselves and turn the attention to them, calculating what they can get out it. Detective Vick (a surprising role for Debra Messing) is assigned to Margot’s missing person case and her and David quickly cross boundaries from the professional to the personal, with them Skyping each other late at night and her telling him about her son. David’s brother Peter (Joseph Lee) tries to support him throughout what he’s going through, but their relationship goes through twists and turns, as the plot does.
Like Kayla in Eighth Grade having a YouTube channel (a film which also cleverly tackled teenagers’ relationship with social media), Margot has a ‘YouCast’ channel, a live video of herself responding to questions from other users. This is the type of thing that makes parents’ blood run cold, as you realize how vulnerable teens make themselves on the internet. Rather than taking the Black Mirror doom-and-gloom viewpoint on technology, Searching is a more nuanced beast, looking at different layers within the internet with a critical eye, but also showing that it is such a pervasive part of our lives now that it has become as complex as human beings are. However, if it wasn’t for the internet, David would not be able to make the headway he does in the search for his daughter. And if it wasn’t for social media, he wouldn’t have the document of his wife’s life that he does.
Filmmakers Aneesh Chaganty (writer-director) and Sev Ohanian (writer-producer) describe the process of making the film as having three stages: pre-post, post and post-post. Despite being an extremely complicated film to make, the actual shoot was short and then followed by a year or two of editing to get all the different screen-types to work for the story. The filmmakers used the Facebook accounts of friends and family and still created hundreds of social media profiles in order for the film to work in the way that it does. It’s mind-boggling to think about how they made this and that they managed to pull off something so risky and unique.
Searching’s biggest achievement is not just that it’s a technical marvel to be admired, but that it’s an enthralling edge-of-your-seat thriller which is emotionally involving. Any parent watching this deeply empathizes with David, who is living through a nightmare for which he feels huge guilt and responsibility. It is a bravura performance from Cho and he is well supported, particularly by Messing in what is a very different type of role for her. Any film that feels fresh and current and which tackles such up-to-date contemporary issues deserves an audience, particularly when presented as thoughtfully as this one. It’s a phenomenal achievement, both technically and in terms of acting. Make sure you run to your local theater as soon as this arrives.
Author: Fiona Underhill, CC2K Staff Writer
Brit living in Southern California.
Former teacher of Media and Film Studies.
Current film writer for jumpcutonline.com, moviejawn.com and others.