SHOMA A. CHATTERJI | 9 SEPTEMBER, 2018
SEARCHING… Nailbiting with a New Format
A new genre
The title of the film Searching could have been a giveaway. If it isn’t, it is because the form the director has used is novel, though not original since other directors have used it before. US-based Indian director Aneesh Chaganty makes his debut with this film. This is somewhat scary for a debutant director because he will find it tough to follow up with a different film, but within the same genre where technology metamorphoses into the language of cinema.
Searching is a nail-biting suspense thriller. But a major portion of the “action” that unfolds uses the full screen monitor of the protagonist’s laptop as its screen where the intriguing story of a small family of husband, wife and little daughter unfolds through videoclips of scenes when a little girl is born, she goes to school, grows up to go to high school and so on, lived through photographs, video clips, scrap books till you wonder when the “real” action will begin. It doesn’t.
The narration is no-nonsense, straightforward without any melodramatic twists even when David Kim (John Cho)’s wife dies of cancer. There are no tears shed, and the father-daughter bond beautifully. But do they really? This big question-mark of possible communication gaps between the father and his teenage daughter after Margot goes missing unfolds towards the climax that reveals the reality of the father-daughter relationship after the mother passes away.
You wait forever for David Kim to step out of the computer screen and face us – the audience, like characters do in any ‘normal’ film. But he does not until it becomes imperative for him to get to the bottom of the mystery behind his daughter’s disappearance.
This is the unique proposition that Searching places us in – to confront the clever and strategic combination of five modern and globalised worlds of technology – the computer, the smart phone, the Internet, video-conferencing and the television news channels and place these within one frame to unfold a thriller. It gets time to get used to this technique though it has been used before, but not seen much by the Indian audience at home.
The two other films have used more or less a similar technique were horror thrillers and not thrillers per se. These are Unfriended (2015) and Cybernatural. But these films either were never released in the Indian circuit or were not written about at all. This is what gives Searching an edge because it is becoming a sleeper hit in Indian theatres, much of it probably due to the word-of-mouth publicity spread by those who have seen and loved the film and of course, media coverage.
Searching does not have a convoluted plot structure. The ‘convolution’ lies in the way the story unfolds, revealing two different sub-plots that explore the father-daughter relationship on the one hand and a mother-son relationship on the other. The policewoman reminds one of Tabu as the top cop in Drishyam where she is desperate to find out what happened to her son who goes missing suddenly one day. The missing daughter, Margot, is hardly seen on the real screen except through photographs and video clips on the computer monitor. Another important ‘character’ in the film is the piano which occupies critical space in the life of the daughter after her mother, who encourages her and even teaches her to play the piano, passes away.
What makes Searching ‘different’ is the way in which the director treats the suspense that involves significant discomfort for the viewer who is caught up in the so-called “pleasure” of a range of emotional sensations from discomfort, to anxiety, through fear, all held together by the tension and everything aimed and achieved though the monitor of a computer with all the frills to be used by David as and when.
Even his line of communication with the lady police officer is through the computer. His memories of his daughter come across through recorded video clips he watches on his monitor. If all this sounds monotonous, the film dispels this myth once and for all.
John Cho gives a marvellously understated performance as the father who refuses to come to terms with the possibility of his only daughter’s death till the very end when he decides to take over the reins of the investigation alone even after the case has been officially declared “closed.” It is difficult to hold this kind of thriller together by a single actor and though his co-actor – the beautiful police inspector complements him some time into the film, she offers a matching counterpoint and the two together weave a magical way to enhance and sustain the suspense.
Searching lacks the horror element that sustains in Unfriended and features like cyber sex and embarrassing video-clips posted online that leads the suicide of a girl, or, social networking that form the plot and story of Cybernatural, or, like The Den (2013), involved with a web-cam based social media that leads to the slasher film defined as a film in the sub-genre of horror films involving a violent psychopath stalking and murdering a group of people, usually by use of bladed tools. The Den is about a young woman who witnesses a murder via webcam.
Director Anish Chaganty is in full control of his script and his narration and plays around almost cheerfully with David’s laptop which has several tabs open all the time keeping shot options open to be ventured into as and when the filmmaker feels that a given shot option would be preferable at a given point of time than others.
Unlike M. Night Shyamalan, he is not intent on scaring his audience but is focussed on keeping the suspense alive and throbbing much like the throbbing heart of David pining for his missing daughter. He has no clue whether she has been kidnapped or has walked out on her own or has been murdered but he keeps his work focussed on his command over networking with his laptop for hours on end.
The camera, when it shifts to the location to look for the missing girl, captures top-angle shots of the meandering roads that divide the dense forests into two, closing up on the search team comprised of the police and local volunteers who come forth to help in the search.
The most outstanding quality of Searching is that the screen monitor, instead of taking away the humane quality in relationships of different hues, actually enhances humanity and even helps David to solve the riddle in the electrifying climax. That said, one must confess that Searching is a niche film. Any one who has no inkling of computers and how they work will not like this film at all. I know because I went with one who is entirely computer illiterate!