Searching review: John Cho + a laptop = a tense thriller

John Cho goes looking for his missing daughter, by searching through her laptop. Here's our review of a compelling thriller...

I have to have a tiny bit of love for any film that starts with someone booting up Windows XP. Clearly Windows Me or Vista were unviable, given how long it’d take the subsequent film to get started, but in this instance, Searching not only instantly incites nostalgia, it also uses the aforementioned operating system for a quite brilliant opening sequence. Imagine, if you will, a sort-of parallel to the opening act of Pixar’s Up, just played out using a succession of gradually more advanced and less pixelated computing operating systems. It’s a terrific, and quite disarming opening to a clever thriller, that earns extra plaudits from the off for giving John Cho a long overdue lead role.

That opening establishes Cho as a protective father of his teenage daughter, the pair of them in different ways struggling to process the death of their wife/mother a year or two previous. Things then take a turn – it’s the premise of the movie, not a spoiler – when said daughter disappears. That leaves Father Cho (as nobody calls him) with a succession of technological devices, an overflowing bin in his kitchen, and a whole lot of social media accounts to explore, as he hunts for his missing daughter.

If you recall the Blumhouse-backed horror Unfriended, or its sequel Unfriended: Dark Web (or Open Windows even, starring Elijah Wood), then you may be familiar with the relatively fresh idea of a film’s narrative being explored via a succession of computer windows. Unfriended, for one, played out a fairly routine horror in an innovative way, everything through the gaze of a computer monitor. Searching is a missing person thriller that plays by pretty much the same rules, giving itself little bits of wiggle room, but never opting for a conventional scene with a camera in a room.

As such, what we see on screen is played out on screens. Via Facebook pages, iMessage conversations, videos, phone calls that are routed through a computer or the occasional news feed. And for two thirds of the film, it’s really great. You’re all but encouraged to pore over the screen, the icons, the clues, the unread email messages, in the hope of solving the film’s core mystery. It’s a cinematic language that works even better as a thriller than it did in horror, and director Aneesh Chaganty – who co-wrote the script with Sev Ohanian – proves expert at turning the script. The momentum is lost just a little come the film’s resolution, although that’s not to directly criticise the film’s narrative endpoint. More that the reliance then shifts to wrapping up threads and more television news feeds, that lack the inherent claustrophobia and mystery of exploring someone’s laptop.

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It’s a fair argument too that the plot itself, removed from the novelty approach to telling the story, isn’t particularly radical when you stop and think about it afterwards. But the film has two massive assets in its corner.

The first is the fact that this storytelling approach does still feel different and fresh. That because Searching is near the head of the queue, it can tread ground others haven’t really explored yet. The other is John Cho, utterly convincing and excelling in the lead role. From the worry lines on his face to the confused father interacting with technology, he is the compelling heart of a movie that itself has plenty to commend it. With an economic running time, taut moments and the film pretty much daring you to take your eyes off the screen, Searching is well worth seeking out. And John Cho is well worth giving more leading roles to as well…

Searching is in UK cinemas from August 31st.


4 out of 5