October Issue 2018

By | Here and Now | Published 1 month ago

In 2013, Timur Bekmambetov came up with an idea for a new film genre, one in which an entire feature film is told from the vantage of computer and phone screens. He realised his idea in his 2014 film Unfriended. Made on a budget of approximately one million dollars, the film was a huge commercial and critical success, and went on to gross more than $ 64 million worldwide. A new genre – Screen Life films – was thus born. Remarkably, the filmmaker’s subsequent films of the genre – Unfriended: Dark Web and Profile – were dismal failures and Screen Life appeared set to go the way of the found-footage films, from 20 years ago, until he produced the smart, sexy and clever 2018 thriller, Searching.

Searching premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 21, 2018, and, in one of the biggest deals of the festival, got picked up by Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions for global distribution at a price of $ 5 million. Released commercially on August 24, 2018, it has earned more than $ 45 million thus far and does not seem to be losing box-office momentum. The film may well end up in the top 25 money-making films of the year.   

Directed by first-time movie director and former Google commercial maker, Aneesh Chaganty, Searching can be enjoyed in two ways – one, as a taut, ingenuous thriller and, two, as a family drama documented in the annals of social media – each facet offering its own unique pleasures without taking away anything from the other.

The film is a marvel of expert story-telling, superb visual execution and ingenious filmmaking. And, it is a lot of fun.

Aneesh Chaganty, who co-wrote the film with Sev Ohanian, opens Searching with a poignant – and unabashedly manipulative – seven-minute montage of digital videos, texts, emails, tasks and searches that condenses 17 or so years of the life of a happy Korean-American family living in San Jose, California. The sequence tells the story of the blissfully married David Kim (John Cho) and Pam Nam (Sara Sohn), who are the doting parents of Margot Kim (Alex Jayne Go, Megan Liu, and Kya Dawn as a child, and Michelle La as a teenager). Things are turned upside down when Pam is diagnosed with lymphoma and her heroic but futile battle with cancer brings irreversible loss and sadness to the family. The moving sequence ends with the death of the mother, leaving the father and daughter to pick up the pieces and embark on a life of close, if awkward, camaraderie.

The story then moves to present times and shows David and Margot dealing with the loss of the loved one with grace and courage. One fateful night in the Kim household, the tranquil screensaver on David’s Mac is disturbed by a FaceTime call from Margot. Deep asleep, he misses the call. She calls two more times, but the calls are not answered. David wakes up the next morning to find out that Margot did not come home after her AP Bio study group. He is unable to reach her through FaceTime or on her mobile phone. After finding out that she has missed school, he calls the police and registers a missing-persons case. A number of calls to her friends yield no answers and things get serious. Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), a decorated and empathetic police officer, comes on board to lead the search for Margot.

With Vick by his side, David turns to cyber-sleuthing and trawls his daughter’s laptop, her social accounts – Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube, the fictional YouCast and the web – for clues to his daughter’s disappearance. His diligent search yields few answers, but raises a lot of questions – Why was Margot skipping her piano lessons? Why did she have a fake ID made? Who is the boy who comments incessantly on her Instagram posts? Why does she own a Venmo payment account? What is the nature of her relationship with her Uncle Peter Kim (Joseph Lee), to count a few – as David comes to believe that he knew very little about his daughter and her life. Revelations, along with unexpected twists and turns, force him to reconsider and abandon conclusions, one after the other, as he moves towards the unexpected final reveal and a satisfying conclusion of the movie.

Searching works for three reasons.

One, it is firmly grounded in the universal father and daughter relationship. The stilted but deep bond between the two is examined with great intelligence and sensitivity. The strength of the relationship affords the film an emotional heft that is often missing in thrillers.

Two, the film works because it features truly fabulous performances by John Cho and Debra Messing. An actor with little else at his disposal in a Screen Life film, Cho uses facial expressions to convey mounting crises, both internal and external, to great effect. His pain and suffering are genuinely palpable. Messing portrays the no-nonsense style of a consummate detective and the sympathetic persona of a single, devoted mother with remarkable accuracy. Her steely character has a hint of menace that is both unnerving and endearing.

Three, Searching works because the device of telling a story entirely on phone and computer screens is particularly apt for a film that deals with size, mystery and the perils of the internet and portrays the struggle of a father navigating his way through the humongous maze of the worldwide web and social media, while searching for the person and the reality of his daughter.

The conceit of Screen Life films indulges people’s penchant for learning the secrets of others. Computers and phones are private, personal devices; sifting through them is decidedly enjoyable and, sordid though it might be, a source of immense voyeuristic pleasure. Screen Life capitalises on the enduring appeal of the sleazy pleasure and, although it may lose its novelty over time, the genre is here to stay. Timur Bekmambetov is certainly betting on its longevity. The Russian-Kazakh filmmaker plans to produce 14 Screen Life movies in the next 18 months. Here’s hoping they are more like Searching and nothing like Profile and Unfriended: Dark Web!