In Searching, a film that takes place entirely on various digital devices, first-time director Aneesh Chaganty explores the role of digital media in constructing identity. Our cell phones and computers enable us to play with identity in new ways and show the world the mask we want them to see, which makes it all the more difficult to learn who people are.
Searching is significantly the second film in the summer of 2018 to feature a primarily Asian American cast. Crazy Rich Asians opened in August, first breaking box office records for rom-coms and now still holding the number one spot over Labor Day weekend at $30 million domestic.
While the numbers for Searching‘s opening weekend remain to be determined, the film boasts an impressive 91% on Rotten Tomatoes as of this publication. These two films are vastly different in genre, so to compare the two beyond their use of primarily Asian American actors is not really the point. However, as markers of a sea change in Hollywood for representation for Asian Americans — historically the most under-represented group in film and television — these two films are important.
While parents of all generations can relate to the sense of losing their child to adolescence, David Kim (John Cho) has a particularly difficult time as the recently widowed father of a Millennial teenager Margot (Michelle La). The conceit of Searching limits the audience’s view of the parent and child’s interaction to a single computer screen on which David first Facetimes and texts his teen at a study group. He reminds her to take out the trash, asks about how her finals are going, and gets dismissed in typical teen fashion by his daughter who is too busy to give him answers beyond “fine.” It’s frustrating to watch David struggle to say the right things to his daughter, erasing and re-phrasing sentiments sent over text in an all-too-relatable fashion. As viewers, we are limited in our understanding of Margot early on, just as Margot withholds information from her father. Thus, we share David’s viewpoint as he dives into his daughter’s social media later in the film looking for answers not only where his daughter is, but who she really is.
The experience of watching the first half hour of this film is similar to watching someone else use the computer — you yearn to yank the keyboard away and do it yourself. It’s the essential nature of our digital devices that the users exercise control, so watching the protagonist David search for information about his daughter (in computer folders that seem a little too conveniently organized) is an exercise in patience. One imagines that if the film were instead a video game, wherein the gamers take on the role of the father searching, that it might feel more engrossing.
Earlier on in this film, David researches Detective Vick (Debra Messing) online and is heartened to see her Facebook cover profile boldly broadcasts her love for her own son. Later in the film, this sentiment takes on a far more sinister nature, when given new context. Similarly, Margot’s relationship with her uncle (Joseph Lee) as seen through their text chain alone is misinterpreted by her father during his frantic search. But the most dramatic use of identity in the film is through “cat-fishing”, where a user pretends to be someone else online. As a cheeky Easter egg, Margot’s school mascot is the catfish.
On its face, Searching is a straightforward whodunit, but it’s use of instant communication technology make it stand out from others of its ilk, for example, the Taken franchise. Not only is David intent on finding his daughter, but we as an audience share his obsessive perspective as he digs deeper into the digital in search of truth. The film may not have aced the translation of the online second space, but it does represent an important step towards incorporating the “feel” of technology in contemporary life.
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