Searching (2018) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A smart, efficient digital era thriller

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“Searching” is a lot better than you may expect. Sure, its small genre territory has been already explored by several recent notable films such as “Unfriended” (2014) and “Open Windows” (2014), but it is actually a very entertaining genre exercise which pushes its premise further with some thought-provoking aspects, and it also has several good moments of genuine emotions which make us care enough about what is being at stake for its increasingly desperate hero.

John Cho plays David Kim, a Korean American widower who lost his wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) a few years ago. During the opening sequence consisting of a series of various activities within a computer screen during several years, we see how David and Pamela raised their daughter Margot (Michelle La) with love and care, and we also observe how hard it was for him and Margot to see Pamela getting very ill before her eventual death. Within a few minutes, this sequence succinctly and effectively establishes everything about David’s life with his wife and daughter, and it is no wonder that this sequence is compared by many people to that poignant opening sequence of “Up” (2009).

After this sequence, we watch David and Margot going through their respective daily lives without much direct interaction. While he is mostly occupied with his work, she seems to have been busy for her study, and, as he points out in their online conversation, she forgets again emptying a trash bin in the kitchen of their house. As observing their plain online communication, you may be reminded of how much our communication technologies have advanced during last two decades – and how much our daily life revolves around them these days.

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When Margot says she is going to spend the night at her study group friend’s house, David does not object to this at all, but she later calls him several times for some unknown reason. Unfortunately, David is asleep at that point, so he thinks his daughter already went to her high school when he wakes up alone in the house in the next morning, but then he gradually comes to realize that something is wrong. He keeps trying to contact with his daughter, but there is no response from her at all, and he is soon thrown into panic as fearing for the worst.

After he calls the police, he meets Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), who, according to what he finds via Google search, is a reliable and respectable detective. She requests David to get any information or clue from Margot’s friends, and he promptly embarks on his private investigation, but he only finds himself surprised and baffled as realizing he did not know that much about his daughter. For instance, her study group friends turn out to be no more than mere schoolmates, and she also quit her piano lesson several months ago while not telling anything to her father.

Now I should be more discreet for not spoiling your entertainment, but I guess I can tell you about a number of fabulous moments in the film. While I like an amusing moment showing David’s steady attempt to get the access to his daughter’s several social service network accounts, I enjoyed how he assembles pieces of information obtained from his daughter’s friends and acquaintances, and I was also entertained by how he later comes to discover where his daughter might go during that night.

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And I also appreciated how deftly the movie rolls its plot elements within its limited spaces. Although most of the movie is presented via the monitors of David’s laptop computer and some other electronic devices, director/co-writer Aneesh Chaganty and his co-writer Sev Ohanian keep finding inventive visual ways to engage and intrigue us, and they did a commendable job of maintaining narrative momentum throughout the film. I must point out that the movie stumbles a bit during its last act, but nearly everything in the story clicks well together thanks to Chaganty and Ohanian’s dexterous storytelling, and you will admire that more during the second viewing as observing how several crucial story elements in the movie are carefully placed along its plot.

Furthermore, the movie is anchored well by Cho’s strong acting, which functions as the emotional center we can hold on. While he can be very funny as shown from “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” (2004), Cho has recently showed his more serious side via recent Star Trek movies and “Columbus” (2017), and “Searching” confirms to us again that he is an engaging performer with considerable talent. There are numerous moments in the movie which depend a lot on his performance, and Cho is believable as his character is pushed into more dread and desperation.

In case of the other main performers in the film, they fill their respective roles as required while holding their own places around Cho. While Debra Messing is effective in her functional role, Michelle La is convincing in her few scenes with Cho, and Sara Sohn and Joseph Lee, who plays David’s laid-back younger brother, also give fine supporting performances.

“Searching”, which deservedly received the Alfred P. Sloan Prize and the NEXT Audience Award at 2018 Sundance Film Festival early in this year, is not exactly groundbreaking, but its achievement is quite impressive on the whole, and it will probably remain on the top of its genre territory for next several years. This is indeed a smart, efficient thriller for our current digital era, and I assure you that you will have lots of fun and excitement from it.

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