Searching is a triumph for Asian representation

By KELSEY KO | September 27, 2018

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Charlie Nguyen/ CC BY 2.0 Actor John Cho plays the lead role in the new thriller film Searching.

As summer came to a close, film critics and moviegoers alike were proudly dubbing the month of August #AsianAugust. The wildly popular Crazy Rich Asians, starring an all-Asian cast, became the most successful studio rom-com in nine years. Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before with its lovable Korean-American heroine Lara Jean became a raved-about sensation among teens and college students alike. So when I heard that the thriller film Searching starring John Cho was playing at the Towson Cinemark this September, I knew I had to get tickets.

As someone who has been following John Cho since his iconic role of Sulu in the Star Trek reboot to his more recent role as Jin in the critically acclaimed indie movie Columbus, I had high expectations for Searching. And boy, it did not disappoint.

The plot of Searching is deceptively simple: After David Kim (Cho) discovers that his daughter Margot (Michelle La) is missing, he desperately tries to find her with the help of Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing). What could’ve easily been a run-of-the mill mystery thriller evolves quickly into genius. The cleverness of Searching is that the movie is not “filmed” in a traditional sense but is shown to the audience through the use of screens. Computer screens, video surveillance, FaceTime conversations, text messaging, TV footage, livestreams — you name the medium, Searching has found a creative way to tell its story through it. 

In the context of the digital age, it seems like Searching director Aneesh Chaganty tries to ask: How much of our lives are spent looking at screens? Turns out, most of our time. Enough time actually, to parse together a cohesive story through our digital footprint.

Beyond spending our time looking at screens, Searching also reveals that the opposite holds true: The screens are watching us. As we watch the mystery slowly unravel before us, Chaganty shows us how we not only live in the age of the technology, but also in the age of surveillance. We witness an arrest through a livestreamed event. We watch a confession through a recorded police interrogation. We see family drama play out through security cameras in the house. So much of our lives also play out in front of screens. In order to have the world at our fingertips, we also give up our privacy. 

Searching also forced me to confront the depth of a parent’s love for his or her child. We see this not only in how David goes to extreme lengths to find Margot — which involves everything from logging into all her social media accounts to a physical altercation that goes viral on the internet — but also in a surprising plot twist at the end in which we see another parent give up absolutely everything and even go to jail for their child. What must it be like to have children and love them so much that you would give your life for them? That’s an emotion I’ve yet to comprehend, and I’m so thankful for my own parents who have always had my back no matter what.

While watching Searching, I gasped too many times to count. The movie leaves you at the edge of your seat. Chaganty chooses to forgo a traditional storytelling in film in favor of letting the story unfurl through screens. It’s the oldest trick in the book: show, don’t tell. Chaganty executes it perfectly and organically.

Artistic value aside, Searching has personal meaning for me. In watching the film, I saw myself. The Korean family unit of David, Pamela and Margot, of mom, dad and daughter — that’s my family. When David was scrolling through his iPhone, I smiled with recognition when I saw that he too had his mom listed on his phone as umma, or ‘mom’ in Korean. When David’s brother called asking about the kimchi gumbo, I thought about my own weird Korean-American food traditions while growing up — the Thanksgivings with galbi instead of turkey, New Year’s Day and a piping hot bowl of tteokguk. 

It’s been two years since the hashtag #StarringJohnCho was trending on the internet in response to white actors being cast in Asian roles. The hashtag envisioned Cho being cast in leading man roles by photoshopping him onto iconic movie posters like Me Before You or The Martian. How amazing is it to see Cho as the leading man we imagined he would be? 

For me, seeing Searching in theaters this September made me hopeful that it won’t just be #AsianAugust. Maybe this marks a future for cinema where we continue to see people of color being the heroes of our stories — whether these heroes are crazy rich socialites, high school girls with crushes or dads who love their daughters. I know I won’t ever tire of feeling seen.

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