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Asian American Film Canon Film Reviews

‘Searching’ is a thrilling computer screen film done right

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searching
Searching (2018), directed by Aneesh Chaganty.

How do you tell a story entirely through screens? Not the professional movie camera screens that make everything look pretty and well-defined, but the screens we know and look at every day: our cameras, our televisions, our personal computers. Can you craft an intriguing story, a gripping thriller, and a deep mystery solely through the digital trails that we leave behind? Luckily, thanks to Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching, we now know the answer to be a resounding yes. In fact, it could even be a whole feature length film.

Right off the bat, Searching starts with us watching the Kim family grow up with the Internet; we see David Kim (John Cho) learn about YouTube and jump scare pranks, while his daughter Margot (Michelle La) upgrades from flash games and AIM to Facebook. In six and a half minutes, the film catches us up to speed. Margot, now a high school, tech-savvy teenager, is FaceTiming David, who seems to be struggling to connect with his grown-up daughter. That is, until Margot goes missing after a seemingly innocuous night of studying, leaving nothing more than three missed calls behind.

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Margot (Michelle La) and David (John Cho).

As David starts to retrace the steps that led to his daughter’s disappearance, he gets help from his brother Peter (Joseph Lee) and Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), eventually leading him down a digital paper trail that includes forgotten Facebook messages, abandoned accounts, and even his daughter’s own Macbook. David soon realizes that his generational gap with Margot is also a technical one, as he finds that what she shares with him is only a fraction of what she does on the Internet. As the truth of what happened leading up to the disappearance slowly comes to light, David discovers that his daughter Margot has more to hide than he originally thought.

As clues are revealed, the mystery becomes deeper and tensions rise, but I honestly can’t say much else without giving away spoilers. I’ll leave it by saying that this movie, like any great thriller, has twists and turns that I never saw coming–despite the small limited cast who I could only suspect as the perpetrators. The pacing is excellent, the score is subtle but powerful, and the writing makes the world incredibly believable; in fact, you could tell the exact month the movie takes place in with the fact that “#DeflateGate” is trending on Facebook. 

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The digital interface of Searching.

Like most mysteries though, once you know whodunit, the thrill of trying to figure out what happened immediately declines upon the next rewatch. Admittedly, a bulk of the movie is simply just that: thrills, specifically those pent up by not knowing the rest of the story. However, the film is filled with so much detail on every web page that there may be subtle hints and Easter eggs that you may have missed the first time around, so much so that one more re-watch (or at least a visit to r/moviedetails), is recommended.

Searching makes for a surprisingly tense thriller, but its real strength is making these thrills feel so real. When David sleeps through three missed calls, we see the notifications on screen as if it were us that missed those calls. When his phone gets an Amber Alert, that’s our phone going off. When he searches through text messages for clues, that’s our interface, our messages, our screen that we see and know. We see this every day, or rather, we hope that we never do, but it’s a few notifications of becoming our own reality. The lines between the screen you’re used to and the screen you’re staring at in the theater are blurred, transforming into one and the same. The result is a thriller that feels that much more real—because that screen that we see is only a half-step away from being our own.

Rating: 4 / 5

Searching is being reviewed as part of our series to review “The 20 best Asian American films of the last 20 years” as selected by Brian Hu and a team of Asian American film critics. This entry is #13 on that list.

To view the rest of the entries in this series, click here.

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