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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Searching, Review: Top-notch laptop thriller?

Searching, Review: Top-notch laptop thriller?

An Asian American plays the main lead in this girl gone missing tale, while the missing daughter is played by Asian American girls at four different ages. That’s not all. Her mother is a former K-Pop star and her uncle is essayed by another Asian, making it probably a first in mainstream American cinema. Searching has the makings of a taut, top-notch thriller, but since it is treated with restraint and a matter-of-fact approach, it remains a drama worth watching and a premise worth applauding, albeit not raving over.

David Kim is a widower, having lost his wife early. He is raising their daughter Margot (pronounced with the t silent). Understandably, he has become protective of Margot and is unaware that Margot does not enjoy the piano lessons her father signed her up in. Margot leaves one day, saying that she is going to be with her study group for the night but does not respond to her father's call--something that was normal for the two, since Pamela's death had caused them to drift apart.

Later that night, while David is sleeping, Margot calls him three times. David discovers the missed calls the next morning, but brushes off his concerns, initially assuming that she is attending one of her piano lessons. However, when he calls her, the piano instructor says she cancelled lessons six months ago. David then discovers that Margot transferred 2500 dollars to a now deleted ‘Venmo’ account. He contacts his brother Peter, asking about Margot's whereabouts; Peter assumes Margot may simply be messing around, since it is almost summer and reminds David that he had done the same when he was younger.

After some more inquiries, David decides to report her as missing. His case is assigned to Detective Rosemary Vick. Vick asks him to do some investigation himself on Margot's behaviour, while she and her team help him out. David contacts all of Margot's friends, after successfully logging into her Facebook account, and finds out that Margot has become a loner since her mother's death. He then discovers that the study group Margot was in said she left early, contradicting Margot's statement that she would be staying there late into the night. Now the searching begins in right earnest, amidst fears that the worst could have happened to Margot.

Laptops and mobiles are the best friends of the present generation, from age 3 to 23. Parents and teachers rue the fact that the children and even older students cannot stay without these crutches for more than a minute. There’s a worldwide debate about the real utility of these modern day mega gadgets, but factors like emergencies prove the utility of phones and incidents like the one at the centre of Searching make a strong case for the benefits of having laptops/PCs.

To convert these elements into a film subject, without getting didactic and preachy, is no mean task. Sev Ohanian, who has co-written the film with director Ashish Chaganty, appears on screen in a first again, before the film begins, and gives a brief intro to the unique narrative, and unique it is. Almost the entire film is shot on a computer screen, and almost all of the contents are legible and decipherable. And yet the suspense is palpable, the proceedings engrossing. Ohanian describes the technique as, “...the term is screen reality."Just like VR, AR, this is SR." Searching was developed from an eight minute short idea that was born out of texts between the two debutants, exchanged in 2015.

Their producers, Bazelev, rejected the short idea but offered to back it as a feature. Chaganty said an outright “No”. Ohanian was sort of interested. Bazelev are known for insisting in films that follow three golden rules: 1. They must all be shot in one wide-shot 2. They have to be in real time 3. They must be shot from a single Point of View (POV). Finally, when Chaganty said “Yes”, they agreed to have all their rules broken. Searching opens with a montage and later continues from the POV of her laptop screen, finally getting into a succession of virtual sources, like TV broadcasts and surveillance cameras. Luckily for Sev and Ashish, the technique works well, even if it comes across as a commercial for Google.

Ohanian is a 30-year-old filmmaker, who, at the age of 20, he produced and self-distributed My Big Fat Armenian Family, a no-budget indie feature film that became extremely popular with Armenian audiences around the world. Shortly after, he attended the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts programme--using the profits from his film to pay for tuition. Since graduating in 2012, he has been a producer on 13 feature films. 4 of which have been Sundance Film Festival Official Selection. Most recently, his film Searching had its world premiere at Sundance 2018, where it was picked up by Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions and won the NEXT Audience Award.

Aneesh Chaganty is the son of a software engineer couple and grew up in San Jose. He used to work for guessed it...Google, and kept practicing his Oscar speech for years. He had never dreamt that his first film would be something like Searching. But he learnt the ‘gimmick’ technique along with everyone else working on the film. John Cho agreed to a 15-minute phone-call but Aneesh got a “No”. Some days later, Chaganty called him again and talked for an hour, when he agreed to a meeting, but the answer was still No. Some days later, an unexcited agent called and told Chaganty that his client had agreed to do the film. Cho was excited, his agent was not.

The film was test shot over seven weeks with a camera operator and editor, in a 100 minute version, with Chaganty playing all the roles, just to get everything right. The hard work sure paid dividends. Searching was shot in 13 days but took 18 months to get into the shape it is now.

John Cho Yan (Star Trek, Total Recall, Solaris) conveys a lot through his looks, and that had to be done, because he is usually shown sitting facing a laptop. Michelle La, Kya Dawn Lau, Megan Liu and Alex Jayne Go play Margot at various ages. Michelle La as the teenager has the meatier role. As the troubled, insecure, 16 year-old who masks her feelings, she does well. Debra Messing (Lucky You, The Women, Nothing like the Holidays) as Detective Rosemary Vick fits the role, though her longish scene before the end appears a bit contrived.

Sara Sohn Mi-bo (top K Pop star turned actress) as Pamela Nam Kim, David’s wife and Margot’s mother appears briefly. Joseph Lee as Peter is somewhat type-cast, but adds to the suspense element. Ric Sarabia as Randy Cartof, Sean O'Bryan as a Radio Jockey, Dominic Hoffman as Michael Porter and Connor McRaith as Isaac lend good support.

In a technical experiment like this, major credit is due to the cinematographers and the editors. Give Juan Sebastian Baron, Nicholas D. Johnson and Will Merrick a round of applause. At 102 minutes, Searching holds interest, but provides no sensation. It’s a thriller that has more twists than thrills, all eminently watchable though.

Rating: *** ½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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