“Today we spend most of our time looking at screens,” says prolific producer Timur Bekmambetov—quite rightly—in the introduction video to his new genre. He is driving a new, innovative form of cinema known as “Screenlife”, where a narrative takes place within the frames of a computer screen.
The concept was developed when Bekmambetov co-produced 2014 horror film Unfriended. After the commercial success of that film, Bekmambetov wanted to delve further into this genre. Searching is the first of the three Screenlife films set to be released this year and has already earned the NEXT Audience Award. After seeing it myself—it’s easy to understand why.
Searching asserts itself as being a straight-up mystery thriller. It follows David Kim’s (John Cho) search to find his missing 16-year-old daughter, Margot, with help from Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing). Of course, a large amount of Kim’s investigation revolves around discovering clues to Margot’s disappearance via screens. With the film being depicted from the point-of-view of a computer, it’s hard not to think of the format as a gimmick. What Searching does so brilliantly is that it never feels like a gimmick, rather a legitimate storytelling device. This works exceptionally well because we—as an audience—feel like a part of the searching process.
The person who gets the largest amount of credit in delivering this immersive quality is director Aneesh Chaganty. The attention to detail placed into the screen aspects is astounding, thanks to the meticulous editing of Nick Johnson and Will Merrick. The film shows how the internet can be used as a tool for good, especially when technology is so frequently depicted as sinister in many films.
What ultimately elevates this film is its focus on providing a strong lead character to root for. Chaganty and his co-writer Sev Ohanian wisely choose to frontload the emotional stakes to show Kim as a sympathetic character from the opening scene which echoes Pixar’s Up. By doing this, instead of drip-feeding backstory throughout, it allows Chaganty and the audience to focus solely on the investigation at the forefront of our story.
With Kim being the centre of the narrative, you have to have a strong performance to anchor the emotional beats and John Cho delivers fantastic work. Cho’s performance feels incredibly real and his anger, frustration, sadness, and paranoia resonates strongly throughout. When he feels like he’s losing grip of the case, tension feels maximised because he’s a character you want to succeed.
Debra Messing also provides a strong supporting turn as Detective Vick—the person tasked with finding what happened to Margot Kim. Having to act largely through computer screens is a difficult task, and both Cho and Messing do highly commendable jobs in selling their intense interactions.
For his first feature film, Chaganty displays a refreshing amount of cine-literacy through hidden details. Once the search for Margot rises to prominence in the community we see a speculation video on YouTube with a commenter describing the mystery as a “Real life Making a Murderer” with another commenter comparing it to Gone Girl. These comparisons are obviously present, but where Searching differs from those is that it’s a universal story of a man who will do anything for his child. Not only that, it delves thematically into how parents can often regret decisions they’ve made, and inflict often unnecessary self-pain regarding their past very effectively.
As for the film’s predictability, the ending is being marketed in TV spots as “the twist you’ll never see coming”. Said predictability will depend on how close you look at little details to see if everything does or doesn’t add up. Chaganty uses a consistent element for scenes which aren’t from the perspective of a computer screen. I thought this device was slightly overused; however, I understand why he wanted to maintain the screen aesthetic.
I love that we’ve had two great thrillers so far in 2018 with Unsane and, now, Searching which have used experimental techniques to enhance their quality and uniqueness. It shows whether you’re a director who is one of the veterans of the industry, or someone who’s making their first feature film, there are ways to tell new stories in an innovative way.
As well as being a great film, Searching is also another landmark for Asian representation in Hollywood cinema as it’s the first mainstream thriller lead by an Asian-American actor. However, I do think this is the peak of what Timur Bekmambetov can do with Screenlife. It works brilliantly for this because it feels like a required element which enhances the previously mentioned interactivity. Without compelling stories and new ideas, this is a format which could get old fast a la found footage. But, for now, Searching is a film which proves Screenlife currently has exactly that—life.
Searching hits Australian cinemas September 13.