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‘Searching’ for a Daughter, but Also an Identity

Valerie Wu, Managing Editor

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Who are we without our online presence? And what do our online selves reveal — or in some cases, disguise — about ourselves?

‘Searching’ (2018), directed by Aneesh Chaganty, seeks to answer those questions. The story of single dad David Kim (played by John Cho) who ventures on a rescue journey after his 16-year-old daughter Margot (played by Michelle La) goes missing is one that transforms the way we think about the Internet today.

Set in San Jose, ‘Searching’ is told through the lens of a webcam — a style of storytelling that may appear to limit the plot, but in fact enhances it. Folders are dragged to the trash when they become no longer significant to the storyline, videos are replayed for repeated emphasis on a particular clue or meaning and events are scheduled on the calendar in order of importance to not only the Kims, but the viewer as well.

‘Searching’ is a thriller in the most traditional sense, but also a thoughtful portrayal of how social media influences personal identity. The first time David — and we, the viewer — learn more about Margot is through her online profiles: who she’s friends with, what she broadcasts and which websites she visits.

It’s said that what we spend our time on most defines who we are, but nowhere is this evidenced more than in Margot Kim’s browser history, which reveal that there may have been another side to her identity — one that she kept hidden from those around her.

When David takes a closer inspection at the contents of his daughter’s private accounts — arguably the most personal aspects of one’s identity — he finds that the daughter he thought he knew was merely a facade for the larger problems brewing underneath the surface.

What this shows us is that appearance and reality are very different, and that sometimes we create our own illusions of who we are. In Margot’s case, her online presence transforms her into a happy, popular teenage girl, a sharp contrast to the lonely teenager still struggling to cope with her mother’s death.

The inclusion of social satire through a browser window is strategic. An influx of Margot’s acquaintances claim to be Margot’s closest friends shortly after Margot is presumed dead, despite barely having spoken to her; Facebook feeds are full of performative posts of condolences, which are included for no other purpose than to demonstrate how Margot’s identity is less for herself than for others’ personal gain.

What may otherwise be a traditional thriller is given nuance as well; the Kims, as a Korean American family, are allowed a degree of cultural relativity in the most subtle ways. The cooking of kimchi gumbo as a household specialty (an Asian American fusion in the most literal sense), the piano lessons and the racial implications of a peer’s words — “She’s in AP Bio, right?” — also serve to provide a specificity to the storyline without making the entire film exclusively about race or ethnicity.

The relationship that culture has with all the makings of an effective American thriller exemplifies the fact that Asian Americans can thrive in their own “mainstream” stories too. In the end, it’s not the detective who solves the mystery, but David Kim, whose devotion to his daughter resonates on a deeply emotional level with his viewers.

Yet what the viewer is searching for is not only Margot, but a complexity rarely offered in any other American thriller: an awareness of identity grounded in race, media and society. And in ‘Searching,’ we’ve found it.

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‘Searching’ for a Daughter, but Also an Identity