The movie follows David Kim (Cho), a single father who discovers that his daughter Margot is missing. He ends up embarking on a digital odyssey through her computer, phone and social media history. Searching has all the twists and turns you’d expect from a mystery thriller — complete with surprise discoveries about Margot’s personal life and a slew of dramatic red herrings. But it’s also refreshing, since it’s told through the lens of the devices we use every day. The majority of the film takes place on David’s Mac, and we see him in a window when he’s video chatting.
Searching opens with the bright blue and green of the Windows XP login screen. We watch as Pamela, David’s wife, creates a user account, sets up her email and collects family photos. These are all mundane tasks, but, together with a bombastic score, they tell the story of Pamela’s life over time. It’s hard not to think back to when we were all using Windows XP, 10 to 15 years ago, a time when broadband was starting to become ubiquitous. Just imagine the stories that our old computers could tell.
“I was a filmmaker at the Google Creative Lab, and basically I got to write and develop and direct commercials for them,” Chaganty said in an interview with Engadget. “Basically our job was to look at Google as a whole, and you know, kind of frame a lot of the technology that was coming out… in a way that us normal people could understand, that was emotional and through some sort of narrative usually. A lot of the commercials that I made incorporated screens and technology, and my bosses there literally taught me how to emote on a computer screen.”
He points to Persian Love and Dear Sophie, two early Google commercials that take place entirely through the search bar and Gmail. With a combination of a dramatic score and skillful editing, they both show us how you can tell an emotional story through screens. Chaganty noticed that those short commercials often made people cry by the end, and watching them felt like “realizing that you knew a language you never knew you knew.”
At first, Chaganty had a hard time seeing how screen captures could be turned into a 90-minute feature film. But he and Sev Ohanian, the film’s co-writer, managed to convince each other as they worked on Searching. “I knew that, despite the fact that you don’t see someone’s face, a blinking cursor can still make you feel,” Chaganty said.
For John Cho, Searching wasn’t a sure bet at first — especially after watching Unfriended, a film that worked but “didn’t feel particularly cinematic,” he told Engadget. Mostly, he was worried about the difficulty of acting in front of a single static camera, instead of the multiple angles of a traditional film. Chaganty convinced him that it would still feel classical by relying on things like camera panning and zooming.
Whereas in Unfriended it sometimes felt like we were watching a recording of a computer screen, Searching cuts across multiple devices and a variety of perspectives. The camera is always on the move — we see up-close iMessage chats and Facebook feeds, almost as if we’re laser-focused on what David is looking at. The camerawork makes something dull like a Google Sheet seem compelling as he feverishly works through a list of potential suspects. Even wide shots of his computer desktop tell a story. You can feel the pressure building as the screen starts filling up with a confusing web of files and folders.