Searching Movie Review: A Pulsating Watch

Director Aneesh Chaganty's film, starring John Cho and Debra Messing, is exciting and slick and economical because it is scarily feasible
Searching Movie Review: A Pulsating Watch

Director: Aneesh Chaganty

Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Sara Sohn, Michelle La, Sara Sohn

Imagine a feature-length thriller that unfolds entirely from the point-of-view of smartphone and computer screens.

This one-line pitch by first-time Indian-American director Aneesh Chaganty might not have completely impressed the producers. One of them, after all, is Russian-Kazakh filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov. It's not just due to his edgy directorial roster: the Russian supernatural thrillers Night Watch and Day Watch, as well as audacious Hollywood crossbreeds like Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Bekmambetov, the producer, has quietly heralded in a new medium of modern storytelling. In 2015, he produced Unfriended – an American supernatural film shot from the point-of-view of computer screens, revolving around a gang of high-school friends on a Skype conference that slowly becomes haunted by a dead student. This year, its sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web, hit US screens in July. As a matter of fact, Bekmambetov's latest directorial project, Profile, a similarly formatted film based on a French journalist's (digital) investigation into the recruitment of young European women by ISIS, premiered at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival and made quite a stir.

This is to state that Chaganty's Searching, at least in context of its cinematic form (which is also its selling point), isn't exactly original. But what's original is its emotional accessibility. It's basically a digital version of Taken – the story of a father defying all odds in search of his missing teen-aged daughter. But the core is distinctly human; it doesn't need Liam Neeson's action heroism, or Unfriended's paranormal activity to "elevate" our perception of its experimental narrative. Unlike its found-footage counterparts, Searching doesn't feel the need to accentuate the physicality of its medium by advertising conventional genre (horror, monster) tropes. It trusts the inherent realism of its situation, and functions as more than just a parable for modern-day communication.


Rather than demonstrating the ills of technology diluting personal expression, Searching acknowledges this irreversible world and its effects on human nature, and instead operates within these parameters. For better or worse, we are addicted to our devices – and it's all about recognizing where our actual personalities unravel.

Which is why it's smart to let a film like this hinge on a young father-daughter story. A 40-something John Cho (as David Kim) represents a non-dinosaur generation prone to equating its parental skills to a control (rather than banishment) of technology. IMessage and Facetime rules his life, too, but he is a little self-conflicted because he has seen a life that is possible – and possibly more personal – without keypads. If his little girl doesn't want to watch The Voice on television with him, he might resent Apple Inc. for a moment – but he might also advertise his hurt by carefully 'composing' a text to her. A 15-year-old girl (Michelle La, as Margot) wouldn't think twice about texting her dad from the other room, or Facetiming from her friend's sleepover, because she knows no better way of exchanging day-to-day information. The screen, for dad, is a convenient alternative; for daughter, it's the only option. For her it's a medium of action; for him it's a chance to edit his reactions.

Searching, in a way, is more than just a pulsating watch. It embodies a strangely coherent union of cinema and life

As a result, Searching is exciting and slick and economical because it is scarily feasible – and because it is rooted to the contradictions of why people need to communicate, rather than how they do. The film opens with a charming montage that mirrors the one in Pixar's UP – we see the highs and lows of a Korean-American family in the language of recorded memories and digital calendars. We see Youtube and Facebook videos of the couple, their daughter growing up, their adventures, routines and landmarks…until one day, tragedy strikes.

I found my reaction here interesting. It's not just us observing the private moment between a man and his dying wife – regular cinema is all about giving us access to such moments, under the pretext that we respect the intimacy of characters who don't know we're watching. Here, we see the video of a family's turning point – that is, a moment captured precisely so that it can be re-watched in a private digital library. It then becomes doubly moving to sense what the cameras didn't capture – her death, their grief – while being exposed to the ultimate manifestation of new-age privacy: a computer's RAM (random-access memory). The pretext: a machine's memory is now our memory.

When a detective (Debra Messing), also a single parent, is assigned to the case of a missing Margot, it's doubly unnerving to sense exactly what David feels as we follow his investigative clicks into rabbit-holes of her internet history. For him, it's the shock of discovering who his little girl really is; for us it's the shock of him being able to discover who she is, with just a mouse drifting across a screen.

The film's skeleton isn't a commercial gimmick; the style is in fact an integral part of infusing the story with an extra tonal dimension to make us feel a certain way

The plot of the thriller itself – bereft of visual grammar – is somewhat ordinary. The final twist is a bit farfetched, too. But that's not the point of a movie experience: it's like criticizing Sebastian Schipper's single-take heist thriller, Victoria, for its "narrative alone." Or judging an animated Inside Out as a live-action concept. The point being, the skeletons of such films aren't always commercial gimmicks; the style is in fact an integral part of infusing the story with an extra tonal dimension to make us feel a certain way. Relentlessly tense for one-take films, relentlessly uninhabited for animated films, relentlessly uneasy for computer-screen films. Survival dramas like Buried and 127 Hours have these emotions built into their sparse spatial dynamics. 'Electronic thrillers' like these build them into their versatile social dynamics.

Searching, in a way, is more than just a pulsating watch. It embodies a strangely coherent union of cinema and life. Cinema is essentially about a camera choosing to interpret various aspects of life. But this particular brand of cinema redefines the eye – personalities are uploaded, and it's life that chooses to interpret the meaning of a camera.

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