‘Searching’ Review: A Breakthrough in Depicting Digital Era

 

A missing high-school girl, an incredibly hamstrung police authority, and a desperate father who is ready to yield anything if he can get his daughter back. With its basic plot, “Searching” may not sound like such a novelty; perhaps, you might immediately think of “Taken,” a Hollywood style French action film that received a noticeable international success.

 

Yes, “Searching” offers crime and suspense filled with familiar-looking clues penetrating the narrative. An average movie viewer would be more or less able to the spot typical harbinger of misfortune that comes to the protagonist, and to anticipate sudden twists. Except for the fact that it is a movie written and directed by an Indian filmmaker, featuring East Asian faces, “Searching” may fall into the category of mediocre thriller drama. Now, after you sense that this movie might not even entertain you with bullet-flying and blood-splattering scenes according to its synopsis, you may seriously consider rather rewatching “Taken.”

 

But you don’t. As soon as you encounter the first scenes of “Searching,” you will forget about the old-fashioned kill-them-all type action. From the beginning and during the entire running time, the scenes will constantly and tightly catch your attention. Without any big-name celebrity, mind-blowing graphic, or extraordinary plot setting, what’s so engrossing about “Searching” lies in the way it is presented. The scenes of the movie are composed of all the digital screens contemporary viewers can imagine, but produced by a conventional camera shooting.

 

Let me give you an example: when the movie opens with Margot (Michelle La) and her father David (John Cho) talking to each other via FaceTime, what you would see is not the scene showing the two from a traditional third-person angle but seemingly the actual FaceTime footage itself; the screen showing David’s face small in the edge and the Margot’s face bigger in the center of the screen. And the unusual structure of the screen-based scenes continues with the main plot.

 

As Margot goes missing one night, David starts fanatically digging into every digital trace left by Margot. While he travels through text messages, video clips, and contacts on Margot’s phone and goes onto her Facebook page, Twitter, Instagram, and Venmo account, you are invited to watch the screens as David does, certainly feeling like you are conducting the search with him or even by yourself. When David and other characters are not online, they are seen through a variety of different media such as a security camera, TV news footage, and a black box in a car.

 

The endless—but never excessive—digital screens shown throughout David’s searching of Margot seem to tell us to what degree our offline lives are now intermingled with the online ones. And the norm-deviating layout of the movie is not only justified but should be appreciated since it aptly depicts the facet of the modern life. At this point, it’s a bonus for the viewers that the movie welcomed Aneesh Chaganty as its director who greatly presents—as a millennial—a delicate observation of the overwhelming complexity of digital windows and digital generation gap in the current era (e.g. David types “Tumbler” on Google when he is told by one of Margot’s friends to check her Tumblr).

 

Of course, “Searching” is not the first of its kind. There have been a handful number of attempts in the past few years that adopted the similar method centering the so-called screenlife; “Unfriended” and “The Den” might be good examples here. However, “Searching” counts as remarkable as it has successfully attracted ordinary movie-goers worldwide. While containing the movie’s experimental trait to its full extent, “Searching” managed to stay in the U.S. theaters twice longer (12 weeks) than “Unfriended” did in 2014, also collecting more than $40 million worth revenue from the global box-office.

 

If you happen to join the group that finds the film eye-catching and appealing, there’s more news you would appreciate. “Searching,” despite its sophisticated delivery and completeness, is only the feature debut by its 27-year-old director. And if you have ever questioned, just like Chaganty seems to have, why movie format stays the same when everyone's daily lives are fundamentally changing with digital media, “Searching” provides a hint of a fine breakthrough.

© Kyuwon Lee, 2020.