Computer-screen thriller ‘Searching’ transcends its gimmick


By LINDSEY BAHR

AP Film Writer

LOS ANGELES

If “Searching,” a mystery about a father looking for his missing teenage daughter told only with smartphone and computer screens, sounds like a gimmick, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Its star, John Cho, and director and co-writer Aneesh Chaganty thought so too initially. It wasn’t even a new concept. The producer for “Searching” was also behind the “screen thriller” “Unfriended,” and wanted a follow-up that used the same technique.

But even with its inauspicious beginnings, the film has become a late summer must-see propelled by strong reviews from critics and a warm afterglow following the successful launch of “Crazy Rich Asians,” which has only bolstered enthusiasm around “Searching” and its Asian-American leads.

In its first weekend in limited release, actress Karen Gillan hosted a free screening of the film. “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu and star Henry Golding bought out a theater too. It made an impressive $390,000 from nine theaters and distributor Screen Gems is hoping that momentum continues as it expands to 1,200 screens nationwide this weekend.

Chaganty laughs now about how he was more than willing to walk away from a chance to make his first feature just because he didn’t buy into the ploy.

“I like good movies, and I want to feel emotional, and I don’t want to give that up to do something just because there’s an opportunity,” Chaganty said. “It was a gimmick. I had seen the other films that took place on screens, and I thought they were gimmicks.”

But he and his co-writer and producing partner Sev Ohanian decided to think about it, and for two months raked their brains for a way in. Then one day, they hit gold. The film, they decided, would open with a montage showing a young family of three through the years told in digital photo albums, videos and calendar dates. It is a slice of life tearjerker that has been compared to the opening of “Up.” And, perhaps most importantly, it makes you care about David Kim (Cho) and his daughter Margot (Michelle La).

It’s what got Cho on board too, who was put to the test in this role. For the most part, Cho had to act opposite only a blank computer screen and webcam.

“I don’t know how I did it, I was bumbling my way through it really,” Cho said. “It was weird, it was like acting in a black box ... Several times on set I was like, ‘Aneesh can we please stop this webcam business, and let’s shoot the third act with a bunch of cameras, real cameras and pop out of it? Can we please?”’

According to Cho, Chaganty’s response to this was, “John, shut up and act.”

“Searching,” Cho said, is a kind of bookend to “Crazy Rich Asians” and both are necessary for advancing representation in Hollywood movies.

“That’s an Asian specific story, and this one isn’t,” Cho said. “Those are two very important things to say. One is, ‘We’re going to tell our stories,’ and the other is, ‘Don’t limit what our stories are.’”

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