Sydney Film Festival: Searching

Tony Ling
12th Jun 2018

When your family iMac becomes the suspect!

Annesh Chaganity’s directorial debut: Searching, certainly has creativity and when it shows – it shows it in spades. With a screenplay that he co-wrote with Sev Ohanian, the plot surrounds David Kim (John Cho), an honest and hardworking single father that faces the disappearance of his teenage daughter after the tragic loss of his wife in an opening music montage very reminiscent from Pixar’s Up (2009).

Now the premise of all this is intriguing in many tenants. Firstly, the film’s all shot on the screen of whatever electronic device the father uses which is predominantly his iMac, Macbook and iPhone. In fact, this film does such a good job of showcasing Apple’s seamless cross-device ecosystem, it’ll probably bring a tear to Tim Cook’s eyes as well as everyone in the Apple marketing department. Never has Facetime and iMessages been so epic in the ‘show-and-not-tell’ storytelling of this digitally relevant thriller.

But it is not without its flaws.

In a way, you could say this film’s formula is ‘found footage’ and with that comes everything that made the horror genre rife with cheap, convenient and implausible circumstances from its various found footage franchises like Paranormal Activity. Many of the more climatic scenes in the movie where you have the detective (Debra Messing) and the dad talk, would probably be more appropriate (and professional) to be had in person rather than over Facetime. The film goes at length to feature almost everything that’s important to be coincidentally in front of a webcam or camera footage played off the Quicktime player on Mac OS. Without spoiling anything, there could certainly be a couple moments that could’ve occurred off camera that would’ve really been able to send a shiver down the audience’s spine.

Instead, the film is rather comical. There are plenty of intended comedy moments be had in this film from the father streaming himself accidentally on his daughter’s equivalent of a Twitch account, to him thinking that a friend of his missing daughter case is the culprit when the suspect’s absence is only because of a Justin Bieber concert.

In terms of tone though, all this excess of humour makes the feel of the film a bit disjointed. It tries to be so serious in its storytelling at times but when a sudden bit of humour (which works) hit, you feel this dissonance that makes you want to go grab a David Fincher film again and experience something a bit more focused and sure of itself. Furthermore, the father and daughter relationship is not established strongly enough before she goes missing to make the drama of this father’s quest 100% compelling. The ending is also incredibly explanatory like Hitchcock’s Psycho as well as Interstellar.

Cinematography is a fascinating beast when its not the various adages of found footage that includes webcam footage that look too detailed to be webcam res. You can’t exactly accomplish Dutch shots or mis-en-scene on your computer desktop unless you want try your luck setting up browser tabs and app windows in a certain fashion…There’s plenty of slow zooms into specific parts of the screen to let you know something’s up. Not exactly subtle but it works to its dramatic effect at times. It’s actually remarkable how sharp and high the resolution of a desktop’s graphics can be, ranging from the app icons to the text of a conversation window even when zoomed. A highlight of this mechanic are the scenes where all you get is the live 18:9 portrait screen of an iPhone’s Google Maps over the 16:9 cinema wide angle of darkness as the father’s voice overlays. It’s a very cool use of technology for storytelling.

The film does shed some social commentary on the superficial side of social media and its effects on youth and human connection. Though it’s not going to intellectually blow your mind, it explores these themes with grace and weaves it seamlessly into its narrative without being an overtly political pushover.  

Despite the shortcomings, Searching is still a fascinating viewing, no alcohol required. It’s a fantastic clash between different generations in this digital age highlighting the innocence of both the father and the daughter in this weary world. The plot twists definitely weren’t all as predictable as the norm. John Cho's performance is breathtaking as the distraught father trying to understand the internet. I wish we see him more on the big screen. Plus, the music of Torin Borrowdale meshes into the background beautifully even integrating itself into drones and transitions from the Mac OS notification sounds. It also seems 2018 has become the year of cinematic diversity! First we get Black Panther and now there’s this movie with a a predominantly Asian-American cast. I mean it’s nice but the roles they play don’t feel like they couldn’t have been played by a cast of any culture unless you want to jump on board the stereotype that Asian kids love playing piano. If you want to be more culturally inclusive as a screenwriter in 2018, try writing the roles with more of the culture in mind rather than an obligatory scene about a Kim-Chi Jumbo recipe.

I do feel concerned that due to the incredibly cost-effective and low-budget nature of this production format, a lot more people will start doing it. Hopefully it will be quality and not quantity - but let’s not hold our breath.

Searching is a movie that is worth watching despite its gimmicky imperfections. If you want a more confident version of what this movie accomplished, go check out the horror film Unfriended (2014) that is also set before Mac OS where a skype video chat between friends goes horribly wrong, back when people still used Skype. If horror doesn’t do you, this film can certainly suffice. Just don’t expect too much as a early adopter.