REVIEW: Modern storytelling in ‘Searching’

“Searching” differs from other technological thrillers in that the story is told entirely through computer screens. It does so through the use of FaceTime calls, news footage and text messages. (Photo from IMDb)

In recent years, filmmakers have started incorporating modern technology into their stories. While visuals have been delivered through computer screens in the past, directors are now trying to have their entire narratives be told strictly through  technology. This sounds like a gimmick; however, writer and director Aneesh Chaganty uses this format to his advantage in his suspenseful directorial debut “Searching.”

The story follows David Kim (John Cho) as he tries to find his missing daughter (Sara Sohn). The last major movie to use this tactic was “Unfriended,” by director Levan Gabriadze, who had most of the movie’s story play out over a Skype call. But, Chaganty innovates the ways in which this movie’s storytelling style can be progressed.

Driving Chaganty’s narrative is information relayed through FaceTime conversations, news footage or simple text messages. Telling the story using screens allows for other details that will be appealing to some viewers. Even if the film is focused on one computer, it can still convey the passage of time, as videos and pictures spanning many years will flash on screen, giving the audience a concise view of characters aging, Many clichéd moments, such as the tiresome quote, “Your mother would’ve been so proud,” don’t feel as insufferable because they happen through text conversations.

Using screens to convey information also allows for minor subplots to take place without disrupting the main storyline. At the Q&A following SCA’s exclusive screening of the film, Chaganty mentioned an eHarmony subplot where a potential match contacted Kim, and her messages changed based off what was happening in the movie. He said that he enjoyed experimenting on with other elements on the desktop as he was setting up basic pages like the Internet and FaceTime.

Aside from the cinematographic beauty, most of the film is marginally good, except for the affectionate opening scene and Torin Borrowdale’s beautiful score. Cho delivers a standout performance as David Kim. Although his character is paper-thin, he gives a believable performance through his concern and anger.

This movie’s best element, however, is that its subtlety. Though “Searching” has not been marketed as a film about the Asian American experience, Chaganty’s careful curation of details, for instance messages that say “eomma” and “appa,” Korean translations of mom and dad, respectively, make the film representitve of Asian culture.

“[Searching] behaves as if we’re past this moment where we’re talking about representation, and there is no need to talk anymore about it because it’s normalized,” Cho said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “It’s an Asian American family and it’s very specifically a Korean American family, and yet that doesn’t have any bearing on the story that we’re telling.”

In many Hollywood productions, this element of diversity feels forced into the narrative, and the latter becomes secondary to this motive; it becomes diversity simply for the sake of diversity. When many Hollywood productions are praised nowadays, it’s primarily just for the inclusion of minorities. However, the best instances of on-screen representation are when it comes naturally, like in “Aliens” or “Mad Max: Fury Road.” “Searching” is a tense thriller that just so happens to star an Asian American man.

For all its decent moments, “Searching” succeeds with this element. Normalizing marginalized groups in the way that Chaganty and Cho did is vastly effective. It’s important to tell Hollywood that this movie’s biggest achievement was putting Cho in a normal role and not labeling it as “Asian-led,” because representation in media will only progress through normalization.

For those who just want a satisfactorily tense experience, this movie is worth seeing at least once. For those who care about on-screen representation, however, “Searching” is worth watching because it is so much more than a stereotypical thriller in many ways.