“Searching” will look oddly familiar. Filmed from the distorting perspective of smartphones and computers, vlogs and social media moments, “Searching” examines how one can have “friends” but feel isolated in a world dominated by social media. This is reportedly the first major movie thriller with an Asian American lead.
The focus is on a broken family–not through divorce but by death. David Kim (John Cho) is a widower, not fully recovered from the death of his wife, Pamela (Sara Sohn). We’re introduced to this family through photos and video marking childhood milestones for their only daughter Margot (Alex Jayne Go at 5, Megan Liu at 7, Kya Dawn Lau at 9 and Michelle La at 16). But those milestones come under the shadow of medical milestones for Pamela who suffers from lymphoma. Pamela dies, leaving David and Margot in mourning–living together but shut off from each other. Until one night when Margot stays out late for a bio study group and calls home three times, but her father doesn’t answer. And Margot doesn’t answer her dad.
David realizes that Pamela had kept track of Margot’s friends and their mothers, the goings and comings and the emotional well-being of both of them. When David realizes Margot is missing, he gets help from an attentive Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) and his stoner brother, Peter (Joseph Lee), but he’s not sure if he can trust either.
And yet, what does “friend” really mean through the distorted lens of social media? Who do we really know and what do we really know about social media connections? From cell phone photos, we’ve become used to over-sized heads and pointy chins, from Facetime and Skype we now see people without being physically close.
Seeing it with a mixed generation audience also hinted at another kind of diversity. One woman gasped when she saw that you could search images, suggesting there is a divide being created by knowledge of Internet search technology. For some this might be educational or even a frightening indicator of how behind the times one can be. I imagine that for some in our parents or grandparents generations, this might seem more like science fiction than matter-of-fact every day life.
Cinematographer Juan Sebastian Baron shows us a variety of views of reality while writers Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian provide a mostly plausible drama. Law & Order fans might figure things out or at least suspect something’s a bit dicey, but this independent thriller delivers angst and warmth with an Asian American family as a new norm. On the Kore Asian Media red carpet Cho noted the movie is “an example of how we’re living today, which is we are increasingly in our devices” but it was also “something that’s very personal to me.” When Cho saw an audience watch it for the first time at Sundance earlier this year, Cho said it was wonderful to see “a family that looked like mine” because there’s “the wholeness of that that it’s an all Asian American family.” Cho is reportedly the first Asian American actor leading a Hollywood thriller and there’s nothing in the movie that focuses on their Asianness except a mention of food. If you have recipes for kimchee gumbo, send them in. I’d publish them.