Having watched Searching at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, it’s a film that I’ve waited for months for everyone else to see. Entirely told through the confines of a computer screen, Searching follows David Kim (John Cho) as he hunts down his lost daughter. The thriller is more than a gimmick, filmed in 13 days, as it features strong acting, shooting, and screenwriting.
Nevertheless, the film rides and dies with Cho, who coming off last year’s brilliant Columbus, has demonstrated immense range in his acting. From a stoner in Harold and Kumar go to White Castle to this desperate father, he’s savvy in riskiness and ability.
Here, Cho walks a tightrope between exasperation and despair as a widowed father of a missing daughter. In many of the scenes, as he interrogates his daughter’s “friends,” he’s either working off voice actors. He’s tasked with taking emotions, which would normally be reserved for a big set, multiple camera angles, and other actors, and compartmentalizing it for a small screen. In fact, during the webcam scenes no more than two cameras are used: one for Cho’s face and the other for the computer screen. The mammoth emotional roller coaster that is Searching never seems to swing too wildly out of control for Cho.
The actor is also accompanied by Michelle La, who plays his daughter Margot. La, much like Cho is solely acting toward a computer screen. In fact, more than the senior of the two, La has even less around her. There’s only one short scene where La has another actor in the same room with her, speaking with her. The rest is solely through facetime. However, much like Cho, she nimbly skates on her isolated island.
And as this thriller takes its twists and turns, as the father interviews his daughter’s friends to find that she has none, that she hates her piano lessons and that he barely knows her, the film holds our attention. Our eyeballs are glued because of Debra Messing‘s Detective Vick, a no-nonsense investigator tasked with helping Kim find his daughter.
They’re also glued because of the filmmakers, Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian, whose use of technology in combination with a pragmatic and lean script are astounding. Though computer-based films have come into vogue because of Unfriended, Chaganty and Ohanian have upped the genre here. Both filmmakers have spoken about such films being gimmicky. However, their project never relies on the technology to be the film. Searching is a father-daughter relationship thriller and mystery that just so happens to be on a computer screen rather than people on a computer screen in a thriller.
The filmmakers are ingenious in their bending of the screen as the film switches not just through multiple windows open on a laptop, but also smartphones, surveillance and news cameras, and live streams. Chaganty loves beginning a shot with a close-up, which appears to be a normal set, then slowly zooming out to show the computer screen the footage is playing on. In that regard, we become lost within the frame. We suspend our disbelief not to see a film on a screen, but a film framed to a screen. The result is a full buy-in of the experience made possible by an attention to detail.
And when thrown into comparison with the recent release of Crazy Rich Asians, Searching is also another Asian driven narrative in a business bereft of them. The hope that the potential success of Searching with the current popularity of Crazy Rich Asians leading to more Asian-centric narratives has yet to be resolved. But separate of those simple and important goals, Searching is an artist and technological triumph on every level.