David Kim discovers that his 16-year-old daughter Margot didn’t come home after a study session, and he searches her laptop and social media to find her.
Searching might look like a found-footage film at first, and it uses some of the same techniques, but it is not a found-footage film: this is a mystery film which shows all the private investigations of a concerned father (David Kim, played by John Cho) via the computer and app screens on which he searches for traces of his daughter. But what is displayed in this way is not captured in one long recording, as it is in found-footage films: all the relevant screens/windows are displayed as they relate to his usage, and they come from several different devices and apps (cameras, GPS, FaceTime, iPhone, Tumblr, etc.); indeed sometimes they belong to other people, not Kim. All of these insights into Kim’s search for and relationship with his daughter are assembled very neatly together and with a soundtrack added (thus confirming it’s not found-footage), more like a modern crime documentary than any other fiction format I’ve come across before.
I mention this format from the start (and I will go back to it) because it is something with which Searching has clearly brought the mystery genre firmly into 2018. Just as young people watch others playing games in the form of e-sports, Searching allows them to watch Kim conduct a search/investigation via his technology: this is a thriller for the Twitch generation, and at the same time for those who found Making a Murderer fascinating. Hence, I’m going again this afternoon to show my son: he’ll be in his element.
The role that John Cho played was the same stressed and bereaved parent that he played in The Exorcist season 2 – I loved him in that – though I think that one was a somewhat more demanding role. Anyway, Cho was an excellent actor in the David Kim role; we’ve all known he can act for some time; his skill has shown itself more and more as time has gone along. He seems to fit neatly into whatever role – and genre – he is given, and it is great to see him in a leading role at long last.
And yes, this is reputedly the first “mainstream” Hollywood film in which the leading man is Asian-American; indeed his family is the focus of the film. His brother Peter (Joseph Lee) has a strong part, his late wife Pam (Sara Sohn) has a small – albeit retrospective – part and his daughter Margot (Michelle La) plays her role well, though she is more of a subject than a character as such. These are all effective actors for the varied roles they play, and between them prove that actors with Korean, Korean-American and similar backgrounds are valid presentations of authentic American families. They are believable, everyday people, with personalities and stories like any other group; and it was utterly refreshing to see. For too long, cinema-goers have been used to seeing such faces as shopkeepers, geeks or prostitutes on one hand or, you know, Jackie Chan on the other. And I’m not glossing over the big step which Crazy Rich Asians made, but that was a film which focused on the various characteristics and prejudices within the community; in Searching, the ethnic background of the characters is not an issue in the slightest. They are regular, everyday people (as many people of all sorts of ethnic backgrounds are), and I applaud the normalcy that their background was granted.
Aneesh Chaganty’s direction was also very sharp and clever: right at the start, he sets up a sentimental back-story to the family, so we can get to know them with a sympathetic eye. After the introduction, things feel fairly light with a low-level-antsy kind of Dad wondering where his kid is; and then the audience is drawn into his growing anxiety right along with him. After all, we see every keystroke he makes, see every glare he gives his FaceTime screen, every tense wait for a password verification code. The music and the pacing of the action are manipulative at times, just as if it were in the hands of a documentary-maker trying to make an editorial point. There are two explicit messages in Searching: get to know your kids; there are sneaky people online. But underneath all that, it’s clear that the Internet – in all its guises – is simply a tool; one that can be used for positive outcomes (such as searching for a missing teen) or nefarious ones. The Internet is not “a dangerous place” in its own right.
I must say that the format used to tell the tale was definitely the right one in this case: if you need to find (out about) someone in these times, you go online, read about them, find their social profiles. And looking over Kim’s shoulder at his screen would have been so 2016 (see Personal Shopper). The family presented was one that used modern technology in a range of different ways, throughout their whole lives, and so it makes perfect sense for the screen used to become blended, zoomed in on and encompassed by the screen the audience watches. Modern communications technology is the world of Searching‘s story, but that very notion was also used to highlight the way people can use social media to separate themselves from real people at times.
There is a negative thing or two to be said too, of course; otherwise, I would have given it a higher score. The main negative issue was actually quite a big one: the plot. There were many little plot holes, and some very lazy plot devices, though these were largely towards the (albeit very hasty) end, so if a viewer is sucked into appreciating the format, they may not be bothered by that stage. I also found the unnecessary exposition quite annoying; for example, there were occasions where two faces were deliberately placed side by side to make it double-plus-obvious that they were the same person. Now it might have been that Cho’s character was taking the time to convince himself in those moments, but I personally found it a bit much.
Then there was Debra Messing’s character. I’ve not mentioned her so far, but she played Detective Rosemary Vick, the lead investigator in the missing person case. Her acting was a little hammy at times, but not inappropriate for the role, as it turns out. But she was the only white person amongst the main cast and this stood out; almost like the two white people in Black Panther. I don’t know if this was deliberate, to show expectations can be toyed with (maybe like Chris Hemsworth’s male bimbo character in Ghostbusters), or if it was lazy writing. I may never know.
The plot issues did weaken the film for me, but there was still a huge amount to admire: the social perceptiveness in relation to the way everyone uses different online platforms in different ways, and how it’s not always easy to know one’s own kids. And more than that, the incredible editing in showing all those platforms in one place, yet in a way that it feels like we’re seeing what the lead character sees. Searching is definitely a film for now: please do see it, especially while it is still now… these moments won’t last long, Korean families will become more normal on screen, and the technology will soon feel dated. But this film marks another small corner turned in the meandering of Hollywood social progression.