Director: Aneesh Chagantry
Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, Joseph Lee, Sara Sohn
Originality in modern cinema isn’t easy in any aspect, but utilising ever-evolving technology is certainly one way to go. In the same way 2014 film Unfriended used webcams and computer screens as the medium for telling its story, Searching goes one step further. As well as computer screens it makes the most of smartphone screens, CCTV and almost anything that could show just how Orwellian society has become. It’s certainly a new and interesting (and also rather worrying) way to bring cinema into the modern world, but is it just a novelty that doesn’t bring anything to the fore, or this sparking a new and potentially successful trend in filmmaking?
David Kim (Cho) and his daughter Margot (La) are grieving the death of David’s wife and Margot’s mum, Pam (Sohn). As a result, they’ve become disconnected as father and daughter, brushing everything under the carpet and putting on a show for each other as though everything is OK. One night, whilst David sleeps, Margot goes missing. When Detective Rosemary Vick (Messing) is assigned to Margot’s case, David insists on helping and investigating matters himself, including interviewing Margot’s supposed friends and trawling through her online profiles and accounts in search of answers. As the mystery of Margot’s disappearance deepens, David begins to wonder if he ever really knew his daughter at all, as well as questioning himself and those around him whom he’s supposed to be able to trust.
The plot, as you may have gleaned from the above synopsis, isn’t exactly an original premise. A young person going missing and creating a big mystery is a story older than film itself. What actually makes it work is the method used to tell the story. As mentioned, in 2014 we had Unfriended, which used computers and applications such as Skype and Facebook to tell a horror story of online abuse and threatening behaviour. Searching takes the same concept and builds on it. Unlike Unfriended, in Searching the characters are often on the move and not stationary in bedrooms or living rooms, so at the end of each scene, when we know something is about to happen, we wonder just how we’re going to be able to witness it when nothing is shown in a conventional way. You almost expect it to flip into a standard camera-shot scene, but instead we’re given things like CCTV footage for when Margot was last seen, or a bystander’s footage that they’ve uploaded to YouTube when David is involved in an altercation in a public place. Even a phone conversation between Detective Vick and David occurs as a voiceover whilst we see a route being taken via a satnav on Google Maps. It really is quite a creative use of technology and it’ll be very familiar to audiences, which makes the film all that more engrossing as it’s a technological world we inhabit for more time in our days than we’d like to admit.
This isn’t to say the story itself is totally lacking. David’s suffering after losing his wife and then the possibility of losing his daughter is portrayed well, and the social commentary is very much on the nose. Social media and the internet in general has very much got its positives and negatives, and rarely does anything fall in between. Searching brings this issue to the surface of its story: the Kim family are introduced in the first ten/fifteen minutes via their memories that are stored on their Windows XP-run computer as pictures, videos, calendar dates and reminders. It presents a loving family who cherish their time together. But it’s also a reminder of how much we rely on technology to stay connected. And then to later on delve into the dark online world of ‘catfishing’ and the ever untrustworthy and intrusive media that never lets up is another stark reminder of the world we live in. Searching isn’t necessarily preaching, but it’s definitely keeping us aware of the pros and cons of the internet and how easy it is not only to fake things online, but how much we can fake things in reality too.
Just as there seems to be a surge in female-led films of late, the same can be said of films led by people of ethnicities other than Caucasian. John Cho, an America-Korean, provides a wonderful portrayal of a man who is trying to figure out how to grieve his wife without interfering with his daughter’s life one minute and putting all of that aside the next in order to concentrate on potentially saving Margot’s life. Cho isn’t provided with anything we haven’t seen before character-wise, but he does a great job in making David the rounded character that he is. In contrast, Messing is fairly bland as Detective Vick. It’s good to see her out of television and doing something a bit different than perhaps other film roles she’s taken on, however Vick doesn’t make much of an impression. There are attempts, when she’s revealed to be a family woman in the same way David is, but it just doesn’t stick in the same way. La is decent enough as Margot, though she doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time. Perhaps due to the format of the film there’s not a lot of space left for many other main characters, and that’s probably for the best, as it could probably seem overwhelming. You can only squeeze so many people into one frame when it’s a stationary webcam or the like.
What the film lacks in originality when it comes to the story it makes up for in its method of storytelling. Perhaps it was a good idea for director Chagantry to play it safe, if not for the fact this was her feature film debut, but because it’s somewhat of a new way of filmmaking that’s still being explored for potential. Now that we know this way can be as exciting as the conventional way, it opens up a world of possibilities for future filmmakers. How can they take this further with their own stories? How can they bring something a little more original story-wise into this new format? The hand-held found-footage format feels like it’s been used to death now, so it’s probably time for something new to start making the rounds until it is also done to death and something else can come along to take its place. Searching will likely have left its footprint in filmmaking history for its methods, but we need something a little more thought-out to really make this new concept of filmmaking hit its mark.