I first saw Searching at the LA Asian American Film Festival in May, with zero expectations, no clue what the movie was about, except that it starred John Cho. That was enough to get me intrigued, as I have always been a fan of Cho’s since Harold and Kumar. While I draw inspiration from many things from my life, it was this silly stoner comedy where I first felt represented. It was a movie truly ahead of its time, highlighting the ways in which Asians were discriminated against through microaggressions, before microaggressions was even a term. I felt it was the first time my story was being told, and inspired me to pursue a career in entertainment.
If you haven’t watched Searching yet, and either:
- want to support Asian American voices in film
- are interested in cutting edge filmmaking and story telling techniques
- like thriller/suspense (not horror) detective stories
Stop reading this. Watch the movie now. Then come back. I’ll wait…
OK, I can’t wait. I’ll try not to spoil too much. But if you have watched it, you can probably guess how much of an impact it made on me. Searching is just a great film. Full stop. No qualifiers needed, not “oh it’s good for an Asian American film”, or it’s “just a fun little thriller flick”. The pacing, the performances, the editing, the weaving of several plot points and easter eggs and the meticulous care with every single scene was nothing short of awesome and inspiring.
The movie is a thriller, but also a commentary on social media and how greatly it can impact our lives in ways we don’t even imagine. This is a universal concept for all Americans, who are growing increasingly wary and cautious of a further digitized world, but we see the story unfold through the viewpoint of an Asian American, specifically David Kim (played by Cho). But while Crazy Rich Asians evoked a visceral response from me from just being able to watch people like me in a fantasy type setting, Searching delves in the opposite side of the pool, where its gritty scenario could happen to anyone American family, Asian or not. From the opening tip, the first thing you notice is that it’s an Asian American family, but it has the effect of un-otherizing Asians by just feeling like it could be any American family. But there’s no code-switching either, this isn’t an Asian American family that “acts white/black/not Asian”, but who are acting American in their own unique way.
That’s not to say that the movie isn’t unique in exploring the Asian American identity, it just doesn’t put it front and center. There are plenty of little flourishes and nuances that you notice from it being an Asian American household, but they serve to enhance and enrich the storyline, not to be the focus of it. And that’s really how I believe many Asian Americans want to tell their stories, but we’re not really given permission to. When a great storyline or concept comes along, even as Asian American creatives, we’re told to make the characters white to make the stories “more universal”. While there are some stories we want to tell that do lean into talking about Asian culture (like: CRA), sometimes we do want to be able to tell stories that could be an American story, but showing that we too are part of America.
I usually don’t approach people because I’m an anxiety-ridden introvert, but I made a point to reach out to Aneesh Chaganty afterwards to congratulate him on what he was able to create. Even though it had been a long and exhausting night, he still went out of his way to chat with me about the film, I could barely get the words out that I wanted to say as a gleeful fanboy of what I had just watched. During his Q&A with the audience, he revealed that he specifically wanted the story to be an Asian American family, because that’s what he grew up with and was familiar with in San Jose, CA, where the movie also takes place. But he admitted it was tough to get producers on board with that (I’m almost 100% positive he got the why don’t you put white people in it comment), so he wrote the movie specifically for John Cho, who thankfully agreed to work on the project with him. The movie was made on a shoestring budget, and 2 years in the editing bay. The story of how the project even came together is a mini-miracle in and of itself, and it showed the sheer determination that Chaganty had to not only tell the story that he wanted to tell, but tell it how he wanted to as well.
There were few times in my life I was greatly inspired after watching a movie, maybe a dozen at best. Searching was one of them for me, to see what Asian American filmmaking excellence that could be revolutionary not just for Asian Americans, but for film itself. If you enjoyed CRA and want to see more Asian American stories, I can’t endorse watching this film enough. More than ever, we need to have audiences and come out and vote with their dollars, the more projects like Searching that come out and do well, the more our films and stories will represent the America that we experience in our daily lives.