Searching’s decision to set its entire run-time in the small confines of computer and phone screens reads at the outset like a cheap gimmick. And in all honesty, there is some truth to this. The premise is a rather simple and common one: following the disappearance of his high school daughter Pamela Kim (Sara Sohn), David Kim (John Cho) will stop at nothing to find her again. Done, stamped, Liam Neeson approved. But the film’s structure provides Searching with the exceedingly easy ability to spice up the rote monotony of it all, while at the same time significantly reducing the costs associated with the elaborate set pieces and intricate production designs common in Hollywood thrillers. However, it is to directors and writer Aneesh Chagentry’s credit that Searching does not simply rest on its laurels and follow through on what one may expect to be a conceited cash grab aimed at millennials. Instead, it uses its premise as a jumping off point while it smartly layers the decisive element of technology through Hitchcockian suspense and boatloads of intricately plotted clues and red herrings: the human element.
And it is this personal dimension to Searching, rather than any of the banked turns and plummeting hills of which the film so adores, that remains consistently the most shocking aspect of that movie. In a heartbreaking opening scene that’s reminiscent of the famous opening of the Pixar movie Up, Searching sews together a tapestry of pixelated computer programs that trace the bitter-sweet chronicle of the Kim family as they raise their daughter Pamela. It’s a deeply moving introduction to our characters, but even more so than that it was a huge sigh of relief for myself. Unlike recent films such as Unfriended or Upgrade which exist solely to warn of the inherent dangers and evils of advanced technology, Searching immediately exuded a comfortingly modern sense of nuance which would carry on throughout its entirety.
Assigned to help David is the seasoned detective and similar single parent Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing). Rarely seen at all, Vick’s icy voice serves as a voice of authoritative reason in dichotomy to David’s increasingly frantic hysteria. For as David slips farther and farther into a twisting hole of complicated Facebook friendships and melancholy social media portrayals from his daughter Pamela, the farther apart he gets from his daughter he thought he knew. Luckily Detective Vick’s experience as a single mom provides her with the adept ability to emphasize with David, and the give and take between the two allows Searching to Ponder interesting questions of parental responsibility. These conversations, in turn, are probably the most successful scenes in the entire film. Like a well-worn diary, Pamela’s technological footprint gives David a confounding look at a daughter he barely recognizes, and when things ramp up ask hard questions about the power a parent actually wields in their kid’s life. Therefore while the story is told through technology, yes, Searching is careful to use it as a tool rather than shining the limelight directly upon it. Because in the end technology is an extension of us. Neither totally good or evil, it exists as the virtual third arm of modern humans on which we project our lives. So it only makes sense to use it to analyze the human condition and not the other way round.
Of course, while the emotional resonance is vital, I’ve neglected so far to praise probably the most important part of what makes Searching so addicting to watch: the mystery itself. And it is to the credit of writers Chagentry and Sev Ohanian that the mystery itself is as good as it is. Intricately mapped out and thrillingly unpredictable, Searching has the uncanny ability to seemingly pull the rug out from underneath the audience at will. And while the trapped nature of the stage makes for occasionally gelatinous and suffocating moments, it’s all worth it in the end. The carefully cloistered walls of the flickering screens allow Chagentry to hammer the audience with a rapid-fire succession of plot twists and observable evidence that build a steady pace of momentum before the chips finally fall into place. And fall they do.
Tying these two elements together, however — the plot and heart — is easier said than done and it is a great credit to Jon Cho’s talent and charisma that David is able to transition so well between the narrator and emotionally wrecked protagonist, in turn steering the small cart. Jon Cho, who up to this point is probably best known for his more comedic turns as Harold in Harold and Kumar and Sulu in Star Trek, brings a sterling command of emotions that is somehow able to transcend the inherent limit to the role. Sullen eyes and a tragic weariness on Cho’s worn face are betrayed by fearsome outbursts of a father’s fiery love of his daughter. And the strong performance was made even more impressive considering just how little Cho could actually do, with the portrait-mode view from Facetime and the heavy reliance on voiceover leaving little creative (or physical) wriggle room. While the computer programs and texts and animations provided more visual entertainment than the similarly constrained Tom-Hardy flick, Locke, Cho’s performance still acted as a one-man show of sorts and thus needed to be really good. In fact, it was because he was so good, that I found myself getting increasingly frustrated that the structure of the movie prevented him from escaping his little cage and taking on a more wide-ranging performance. Cho has the talent and looks to be a bonified A-lister and it was incomprehensible to me why no one else could see what Searching so clearly proved (in the context of Crazy Rich Asians which came out just a few weeks earlier, I think the answer is depressingly obvious).
But thankfully Searching chose Cho to star because Searching, despite what it may seem from the outside, is concerned first and foremost with making a good movie. And besides a sometimes static nature to it all, Searching’s twisty and personal journey through the electronic imprint of the human brain creates an enthralling and surprisingly poignant Friday night mystery.