Arts & Culture

‘Searching’ fails to realize Asian American cinema

Aneesh Chaganty’s film extends problems of ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ offers archetypal characters

By
Contributing Writer
Monday, September 24, 2018

“Searching,” directed by Aneesh Chaganty, is a hyper-modern thriller told solely through the technological forms of communication used in daily life, such as FaceTime and text messaging.

“Searching,” the debut film of director Aneesh Chaganty, opens up by presenting a very Silicon Valley family in a very Silicon Valley way: David Kim (John Cho) and Pamela Kim (Sara Sohn) are pictured raising their daughter Margot (Michelle La) entirely through the perspective of a computer screen, every childhood moment neatly compartmentalized and stilted. Margot’s entire adolescence is seemingly mediated through the dim, digitized hyperreal — birthdays are shown on video files, important dates are shown through calendar events and family pranks are uploaded on YouTube. When Margot enters high school, Pamela passes away from cancer, setting off a chain of events: Margot eventually goes missing and David subsequently transforms into a vengeful father desperately tracking down his daughter.

“Searching” opened earlier this year at Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize. In late August, it debuted in theaters nationwide, garnering a 92% Rotten Tomatoes rating and $50 million at the box office. The movie primarily features a Korean American cast, which includes only one significant non-Korean character who is cast as an FBI agent. Though the film technically constitutes the first major thriller headlined by an Asian American, “Searching” has been almost completely disregarded for its landmark casting, especially compared to the other major Asian American film of the summer: “Crazy Rich Asians.” Critics and audiences have talked about “Searching” in regards to its plot rather than its cast, while Crazy Rich Asians has been talked about in regards to its cast rather than its plot. “Searching,” for critics, appears to be no more than a thriller in which Asians happen to take part, while “Crazy Rich Asians” is nothing short of an Asian American movement, heralded for its watershed casting decisions while escaping any of the derision that could be directed at its reductive plot.

At its surface, “Searching” appears much more representative of Asian America than “Crazy Rich Asians.” It takes place in the heartland of model minority excellence, Silicon Valley, and centers itself around a full Korean family, complete with an engineering dad and a piano playing, AP Biology-taking daughter. However, this is where the purported “Asian Americanness” of the film ends; once the central search for Margot begins, the shortcomings of the movie quickly become evident. After the film’s exposition, the characters, namely David, become essentially raceless and devoid of deeper identity, and turn into vehicles that simply serve to push the plot along. The computer screen framing of the film further reduces actors to one dimensional digital personas; David even turns his supposed “suspect list” into an Excel doc, where Facebook profile photos are paired next to one sentence bios. As a result, it is no wonder why critics have ignored the supposedly revolutionary casting of the film and instead focused squarely on its genre and technical gimmickry.

“Searching” should have been as much about David’s growth as it was a crime mystery, but instead does almost nothing to take advantage of John Cho’s excellent acting, depriving him of any serious chance of development while under crisis. As Richard Brody of The New Yorker writes, “for all its reflection of secrets and traits both contained and dispersed in a person’s digital identity, it (“Searching”) offers almost nothing of its characters’ identities. It renders them virtually faceless and lacking in inclinations, interests, and idiosyncrasies.” Asian Americanness aside, the film only allows Cho to vacillate between two emotions: rage and despair, and even these emotions are dulled through being presented through a distilling, secondary medium (FaceTime, voice call).

Of course, filmmakers should never be responsible for educating viewers on racial histories and intricacies, but the film falls flat largely because character development—Asian American character development, informed heavily by racial histories and intricacies—is ignored. Director Aneesh Chaganty—himself a Bay Area, second generation Asian American— may have intended for “Searching” to be an attempt to normalize Asians on screen, implicitly saying that they are no different from their white counterparts. The effect of this decision, however, is that the Kim family could seamlessly be replaced with the family from “Roseanne” or any family from “Modern Family” with no serious changes.

Undoubtedly, “Searching” kept me captivated from beginning to end. However, as a Korean American viewer, I constantly longed to see more meaningful moments, especially in regards to David’s inability to address grief with his daughter, which served as an unexplained underpinning that set the plot of the movie in action. The film could have presciently explored how Asian Americans suppress any acknowledgement of trauma between generations, trauma that subsequently bleeds through in more insidious ways. I also longed for a better understanding of David’s isolation during the period after his wife’s death—the film vitally misses a window to situate this isolation in terms of Han, the distinctly Korean mode of collective suffering, as well as the profound isolation many adult Asian Americans undergo in periods of grief, as many are separated from their families by thousands of miles.

I began to wonder if this is what mainstream “Asian American cinema,” a genre that does not currently exist, had to be, one in which either everything Asian American is rendered inconsequential (“Searching”) or in which everything Asian American is pulled to the extremities of lavish excess (“Crazy Rich Asians”). I thought of the small budget Asian American films made in past decades, such as 2002’s Better Luck Tomorrow, in which John Cho and a cast of Asian American actors violently overturn their high achieving student lifestyles, or the gripping Asian American narratives presented by the Asian American “Class of ‘97,” in which John Cho, again, took part in. Twenty years later, it appears that the industry enforced stereotyping and whitewashing that comes with the transition from small budget to major studios is as firm as ever, and it is still largely accepted that this is a necessary first step to creating a more authentic Asian American cinema—but is it?

Summer 2018 has been a particularly fecund time for Asian American cinema, with titles such as “Killing Eve,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” “Kim’s Convenience” and the obvious “Crazy Rich Asians.” John Cho himself has signed on to star in Alan Yang’s forthcoming “Tigertail,” a Netflix film about a Taiwanese immigrant family that will hopefully explore the East Asian American family in a more substantive way than “Searching.” Nevertheless, “Searching” meaningfully contributes to this list of films, providing much-welcomed on-screen representation—albeit in an aspirationally white, model minority type of way. It is only my regret that a movie that could have been a powerful meditation on the grief and trauma of the dissolution of the Asian American family became a nondescript, meek facsimile of “Taken.”

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