Searching Transcends Its On-Screen Gimmick

Sight unseen, it’s tempting to dismiss a film like Searching as a gimmick. First-time director Aneesh Chaganty takes a familiar thriller storyline – a father’s (John Cho’s) frantic search for his missing daughter (Michelle La) – and pairs its narrative twists with an aesthetic one: the entire film occurs on Cho’s computer screen. It’s been done before, right? And unlike Unfriended, a horror film haunted by digital ghosts, or Nacho Vigalondo’s Open Windows, which revolved around privacy and surveillance, it’s not like the film’s premise requires a digital ‘setting’. You could have produced this script with only minor modifications without the ‘gimmick’.

Dismissing Searching like this would be a dire mistake. Call the on-screen vantage point a gimmick if you will, but it’s a gimmick that in fact elevates Chaganty’s thriller tropes. Reviewing Unfriended, I observed that it “should be rewarding attention to detail from its audience, not revealing its shambolic structure” in reference to on-screen continuity errors. Films typically and justifiably limit the information provided to audiences. For example, most text messages seen on-screen don’t include any of the contact’s previous text messages. While you can – and I have, often – argue that this is a missed opportunity for incidental characterisation, it’s an entirely understandable choice. Directors don’t want their audience reading old, irrelevant messages and missing the plot-critical new one. Searching is different, though. It’s a mystery, and the mystery genre is built on incidental information – incidental information filling every frame of this carefully-constructed film.

When David Kim’s daughter, Margot, goes missing – the spectre of foul play evoked by three unanswered calls lighting up his monitor in the night – he finds himself digging through every scrap of her social media for clues. Given how long we’re encouraged to share David’s intense scrutiny of the screen, Chaganty has thoughtfully populated every inch of the screen with information that could serve as important clues … or red herrings. Is that stray comment five-deep in Margot’s Messenger that “Mr Lee is a creep” foreshadowing or irrelevant? You’ll have to wait and see – and watch carefully.

If this were shot in real-time – as in Open Windows or Unfriended – this would get tedious and, frankly, boring. So rather than allow the audience’s gaze to drift to an extraneous application window, Chaganty sets his story over a number of days and regularly cuts off the frame to focus on a smaller section of the computer screen. With a precise attention to detail – in the prologue, we’re treated to a nostalgic showcase of Windows XP and the Facebook GUI from ten years ago, and later in the piece Google Reverse Image Search enables a shocking twist – the net effect is one of verisimilitude, which makes the search for Margot feel all the more real.

That reality is reinforced by the superlative work of John Cho. He’s asked to bear the weight of a screenplay built around some whiplash-inducing surprises, and succeeds admirably and apparently effortlessly. He pulls off paternal, grief-stricken, angry, depressed and derange with aplomb. It’s a timely reminder – with Searching opening in Australia a couple weeks after mega-hit Crazy Rich Asians – that Cho would’ve been a Hollywood megastar had he been born a different ethnicity, rather than relegated to barely-seen supporting roles in the Star Trek franchise. It’s refreshing to see him leading an honest-to-goodness film, and I’m hopeful we see him top-billed again shortly.

As much as I really liked Searching, I must acknowledge that the on-screen set-up strains as the film moves into its twist-laden third act. The storytelling remains sharp, but the film has to bend over backwards to accommodate its aesthetic constraints. Thankfully it rights itself shortly afterwards, building to a genuinely moving conclusion. What might have been a bog-standard thriller without its gimmick ends up enhancing both the gimmick and the film.

4 stars

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