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Where EAST meets the Northwest

#StarringJohnCho. This image released by Sony Pictures shows John Cho in Screen Gemsí thriller Searching. Cho stars as a father trying to find his missing teenage daughter. The film has become a late summer must-see propelled by strong reviews from critics and a warm afterglow following the successful launch of Crazy Rich Asians. (Sebastian Baron/Sony Pictures via AP)

From The Asian Reporter, V28, #18 (September 17, 2018), page 13.

Computer-screen thriller Searching transcends its gimmick

By Lindsey Bahr

AP Film Writer

LOS ANGELES ó If you think Searching, a mystery about a father looking for his missing teenage daughter told only with smartphone and computer screens, sounds like a gimmick, donít worry, youíre in good company. Its star, John Cho, and director and co-writer, Aneesh Chaganty, thought so too initially. It wasnít even a new concept. The producer for Searching was also behind the "screen thriller" Unfriended, and wanted a follow-up that used the same technique.

But even with its inauspicious beginnings, the film has become a late summer must-see propelled by strong reviews from critics and a warm afterglow following the successful launch of Crazy Rich Asians, which has only bolstered enthusiasm around Searching and its Asian-American leads.

In its first weekend in limited release, actress Karen Gillan hosted a free screening of the film. Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu and star Henry Golding bought out a theater too. It made an impressive $390,000 from nine theaters, according to distributor Screen Gems, and quickly expanded to 1,200 screens nationwide.

Chaganty laughs now about how he was more than willing to walk away from a chance to make his first feature just because he didnít buy into the ploy.

"I like good movies and I want to feel emotional and I donít want to give that up to do something just because thereís an opportunity," Chaganty said. "It was a gimmick. I had seen the other films that took place on screens and I thought they were gimmicks."

But he and his co-writer and producing partner Sev Ohanian decided to think about it, and for two months raked their brains for a way in. Then one day, they hit gold. The film, they decided, would open with a montage showing a young family of three through the years told in digital photo albums, videos, and calendar dates. It is a slice of life tearjerker that has been compared to the opening of Up. And, perhaps most importantly, it makes you care about David Kim (Cho) and his daughter Margot (Michelle La).

Itís what got Cho on board, too, who was put to the test in this role. For the most part, Cho had to act opposite only a blank computer screen and webcam.

"I donít know how I did it, I was bumbling my way through it really," Cho said. "It was weird, it was like acting in a black box ... Several times on set I was like, ĎAneesh can we please stop this webcam business and letís shoot the third act with a bunch of cameras, real cameras and pop out of it? Can we please?í"

According to Cho, Chagantyís response to this was, "John, shut up and act."

While the concept may have been frustrating to execute, the final product and story is so seamless it almost makes you forget that youíre watching a story unfold through screens.

"After I saw the movie for the first time, I (told Aneesh), ĎYou have expanded the vocabulary of cinema, and that is so freaking hard to do,í" Cho said.

Searching, Cho said, is a kind of bookend to Crazy Rich Asians and both are necessary for advancing representation in Hollywood movies.

"Thatís an Asian specific story and this one isnít," Cho said. "Those are two very important things to say. One is, ĎWeíre going to tell our storiesí and the other is, ĎDonít limit what our stories are.í"

Chaganty simply wanted an Asian-American lead, and specifically Cho, because those are the families he grew up around in San Jose, California, where the film is set. Other than that, there is no story reason that necessitates that the lead be any ethnicity.

"I grew up watching movies that I loved that had nothing to do with race or culture or addressing skin color that just didnít have people like me in it. Mission: Impossible, the Bourne movies, the ones that donít have anything to do with that," Chaganty said. "Weíve become part of the conversation because weíre the first ones to do it in a thriller. Itís insane to me that this is even a conversation. I hope people look back on this and are like ĎI donít get how this is racially progressive.í"

The filmís opening and the enthusiasm around it has also made Cho start to reflect on progress. The 46-year-old Korean-American actorís name became its own social media movement in 2016 when a tech-savvy man, William Yu, started photoshopping Cho into movie posters for Hollywood blockbusters like Spectre along with the hashtag #StarringJohnCho.

"Iíve been asked so much about it and itís kind of awkward. The common question is, ĎDid it work?í And Iím like, ĎI donít know!í In a way, I was thinking it didnít work because they were like, ĎOh heís supposed to be Captain Americaí or something in these big tent-pole movies. And while I really appreciated that sentiment, Iím not in any of these franchises. Iíve got my own, but Iím not in any of those," Cho said.

And yet, he also sees a silver lining. The two movies heís starred in since #StarringJohnCho, Columbus and Searching, were directed by Asian Americans and found their own grassroots success.

"Itís an incredible story about what the people can will to be," Cho said.

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