For better or worse, we all live our lives on screens today. Since technology has pervaded our reality, filmmakers have been trying more and more to figure out an effective way to depict these things because we use them so much.
So far, the more successful attempts to use social media as a narrative tool have been Levan Gabriadze’s horror film ‘Unfriended’ and Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s ‘Catfish’, a documentary which worked a lot better as a found-footage thriller.
In director Aneesh Chaganty's debut film 'Searching', a perpetually frowning John Cho (best known for his role as Harold Lee in the ‘Harold & Kumar’ films and Hikaru Sulu in the rebooted ‘Star Trek’ franchise) stars as David Kim, a father struggling to come to terms with the cancer death of his wife, Pamela (Sara Sohn).
When his 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La) fails to return home following an all-night study group, some cursory sleuthing reveals that the other kids in the study group aren’t all that close with her, and that she wasn’t with them for most of the night. As David attempts to track down his daughter, he discovers that he may not know her life as well as he thinks he does.
David decides to report her as missing and his case is assigned to Detective Rosemary Vick (a distractingly cast Debra Messing, ‘The Mothman Prophecies’, TV's 'Will & Grace'). He is also supported by his weed-smoking brother, Peter (Joseph Lee), leading to some amusingly self-aware scenes of the ‘Harold and Kumar’ stoner icon scolding his bro on recreational drug-use.
Co-written by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian, ‘Searching’ makes history as the first mainstream thriller headlined by an Asian American actor in Hollywood - John Cho was the subject of the 2016 viral social media movement, #StarringJohnCho, which campaigned for more Asian American actors to be cast in traditional leading roles. The film presents its characters - predominately an Asian cast - free of clichés or stereotypes.
Another interesting aspect is the film’s unique visual style. ‘Searching’ is shot from the point of view of smartphones and computer screens - similar to the found-footage style; instead of everything captured via in-movie recording devices, the “action” unfolds entirely through real-life screens. The narrative is painstakingly glued together via a range of media, from mobile phones, laptops, streaming video, and news footage.
The film is impressively structured, using social media to depict David’s interior thought process via a cursor hesitating over a hyperlink or a sentence quickly deleted. It’s an interesting way to burn through a huge amount of exposition, making it somehow more direct through access to search engine use, glimpses of chat history, and old photos. 'Searching' also functions as a subtle indictment of social media: David and Margot’s relationship has clearly broken down not only because of Pamela’s death, but because of the array of technology placed between them.
However, for much of this movie, it’s just David and his computer.
Does this make for an engrossing viewer experience?
Eventually, social media fatigue creeps in. You begin to wonder why David doesn’t just call someone or, y’know, drive over to visit them for a face-to-face interview instead of using FaceTime. Ironically, for such a static film, one of the film’s producers is Timur Bekmambetov (he also produced ‘Unfriended’), the director of high-octane action extravaganzas like ‘Wanted’, ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’ and ‘Ben-Hur’.
The film is impressively structured, using social media to depict David’s interior thought process via a cursor hesitating over a hyperlink or a sentence quickly deleted.
In the ‘Unfriended’ series, the action is mostly confined to whatever the lead character sees through his laptop because, for supernatural reasons, the characters can’t step away from the screen. ‘Searching’ doesn’t have that storytelling shortcut, so it ends up breaking its own rules with some local news streaming, surveillance cameras, and a few other images that aren’t necessarily being watched by David in real time. Occasionally, these feel like forced connections.
The film evidently aspires to be a Hitchockian thriller - David is an average man thrust into a strange situation, the action restricted to a single setting, plot twists aplenty, characters who cannot be trusted and so on. ‘Rear Window’ for the iPhone generation.
But ‘Searching’ is more stylistically reminiscent of Hitchcock’s biggest fan, Brian De Palma, a director who favours dense visual structure, often using mirrors and windows to emphasise the way people look at themselves and each other, and using split-screens to underscore fragmented personalities (a recent example being Francoise Ozon’s ‘Double Lover’).
De Palma has also never been afraid of including a smelly red herring or a ridiculous plot twist (or five), and it is here that ‘Searching’ encounters a more serious problem. The film spends a lot of time on details, like taking the audience through the entire process of David logging into his daughter’s Facebook by hacking into her email account via a password guessed through trial-and-error. It establishes a grounded tone by following the minutiae of David’s investigation. This tone is shattered when the final act of the plot hinges on a very conventional (some might say far-fetched) “Hollywood” thriller-style twist.
You shouldn’t have to justify anyone’s skin colour to be in a thriller, an action movie, or a mystery. Filmmakers should be able to let the story tell itself, and the people in it should hopefully reflect everybody who lives on this planet. While the narrative of ‘Searching’ strains against the confines of its unique style, and the plot twists become increasingly hammy, the film (alongside ‘Crazy Rich Asians’) still represents another ambitious step forward for Asian American representation in cinema.