Saturday, November 17, 2018

"Searching": review

I had already heard plenty of positive buzz about 2018's "Searching," directed by Aneesh Chaganty and starring John Cho as a father desperately looking for his missing teenage daughter, and Debra Messing (of "Will and Grace" fame) as the officer helping with the search. I had hoped to see "Searching" in Korean theaters, but after coming back from France, I was too late to catch it there. Luckily, the movie is already out on US home video, so I picked up an iTunes copy and watched it last night.

The movie begins with a biographical overview of the Kim family, Californians living a happy, modern life while utterly plugged into the online world—social media, text and video chatting, etc. David Kim (Cho) is married to Pam (Sara Sohn); they have a daughter named Margot (through the years: Alex Jayne, Megan Liu, Kya Dawn Lau, and finally Michelle La), and we watch Margot grow from a little tyke to a young high-schooler. But tragedy strikes when Pam dies of lymphoma (no worries: this isn't a spoiler; it happens very early in the film and sets up the situation), and her death fundamentally alters Margot's relationship with her father. From her father's oblivious point of view, things seem to be on a more or less even keel, but one day, Margot turns up missing after going to a study-group session. At first, David isn't alarmed: Margot's sudden silence coincides with a scheduled camping trip. But as David pokes around, as time passes, and as signs become more ominous, David begins to realize something terrible may have happened to his daughter. Finally reporting Margot as a missing person, David comes in contact with Detective Rosemary Vick (Messing), who does what she can to help David track Margot down.

Saying much more about the plot would inevitably take us into spoiler territory, and this is a movie with so much simmering tension and so many plot twists that to spoil the film would be to ruin the experience for you. Let's talk, instead, about the film's central visual gimmick: like the movie "Chronicle," the story is told entirely through screens and cameras: cell-phone cameras, desktop cameras, laptop cameras, and even the cameras of news crews who get involved as Margot's case goes public. In the early flashback scenes about the Kim family, we see old Windows-format desktops and icons, an amusing bit of nostalgia. In modern times, we see the massive use of Twitter, Google, FaceTime, and a Periscope-lookalike. At one point, when David suspects someone close to him, we see the action through tiny security/spy cameras that David secretly places in this person's house. Much of the software is Mac-based; it was a bit surreal for me to be watching the movie on my Mac laptop and seeing ethereal screensavers such as normally appear on my own MacBook Air. I reflexively checked, several times, to see whether a cursor on my screen belonged to the movie or to my own computer.

While still trying hard not to spoil the movie, I will say that, when the final reveal of the culprit happened, I hadn't anticipated who the culprit might be, but at the same time, I didn't feel all that surprised. As with any mystery involving a very limited cast of characters, the villain inevitably ended up being a person who was right under our nose the entire time, resulting in that forehead-slapping "Oh, I should've guessed that!" moment. Even though I couldn't predict who the perpetrator might have been (and the movie was savvy enough to offer several candidates, as well as to wonder aloud whether Margot herself might have been the cause of her own disappearance), I wasn't shocked when the revelation occurred.

Another interesting facet of "Searching" is how the Kim family's Korean ethnicity plays zero role in the plot. The Kims speak no Korean with each other, although David's brother Peter (Joseph Lee) does spell out, in Roman letters, the Korean terms "eomma" and "appa" ("Mom" and "Dad") in a text to David. Aside from that, the movie dwells not at all on the Kims' Koreanness, and the ethnicity of other minor characters in the story isn't highlighted, either. The focus was entirely on the situation: a father is searching for his missing daughter; this could be any parent's ultimate nightmare, regardless of ethnicity.

The movie does tip its hand, though, somewhere between the two-thirds and three-quarters mark, and this allowed me easily to predict the film's ultimate question: would David find his daughter dead or alive? I can't say too much about how the movie accidentally leaves this hint, but it's primarily a matter of the timing of the reveal, and once the reveal happens, most of the movie's suspense drains away in the final few minutes. This isn't to say that the reveal ruined the movie for me; I thoroughly enjoyed "Searching" for the entirety of its run time. But with a slight tweak to the script, the tension could have been ratcheted up just a wee bit higher, and for a wee bit longer.

Another flaw of the movie is that, because it focuses so specifically on the technology of 2018, it's going to date itself and become laughable (or at least cute from a condescending point of view) fairly quickly. A second viewing of the film, say, ten years from now, will be cringe-inducing as we look back at this snapshot of the end of a decade. Think of a movie like the 1980s-era "Wargames," which also leaned heavily on computer technology, and which now appears rather silly, given how poorly it's aged.

That said, along with offering us a taut family thriller, "Searching" also gives us some excellently biting social commentary about the artificiality and hypocrisy of people who suddenly find themselves in the orbit of someone famous. Early on, when David is combing through Margot's list of social-media contacts, most of Margot's classmates tell David noncommittally that they weren't close to Margot, making David wonder whether Margot had any actual friends at school and elsewhere. Later on, when Margot's disappearance has made the news, these same people suddenly pop up on social media, some even crying crocodile tears, now claiming to have been extremely close to Margot. David, the beleaguered father, comes in for his own share of abuse as the missing-persons case goes public: at one point, he's subjected to a parodic LOLCats-style meme showing his face and a sarcastic caption to the effect of, "World's Best Dad," suggesting he's to blame for his daughter's having run away. The movie gives us a realistic portrayal of how family disasters unfold in modern America.

Cho and Messing play off each other quite well. Their relationship goes through several beats and phases—from prickly to conciliatory, with the establishment of trust being a constant, running issue between them. For those used to seeing Debra Messing as a comic actress, her role in "Searching" will be eye-opening as she proves to be more versatile than one might think. And having John Cho as a lead in something other than a Harold and Kumar movie is also refreshing; Cho is convincing as an increasingly distraught father. "Searching" stands in stark contrast to "Crazy Rich Asians," a film that gently smirks at how over-privileged, ethnicity-conscious Asians live their detached-from-reality lives; this movie is about a family, already reeling from one tragedy, that finds itself in the midst of a second tragedy in the making. Privilege and ethnicity are the last things on anyone's minds in "Searching," and that right there is reason enough to recommend this well-crafted film.

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