Since 1997, Searching star John Cho has appeared in a diverse array of film and television (remember when he had the knife-wielding roommate in Felicity?). When he appeared in American Pie as the “MILF guy” he not only popularized the term but gained a reputation for his comedic chops. This paved the road for Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle which gained a rabid following and spawned two sequels. On the surface, the Harold & Kumar franchise may be a stoner comedy, but it was a benchmark for Asian Americans in film with two Asian American male leads (the other being Kal Penn) in a major studio comedy and they were love interests.
Cho has been a quiet trailblazer when it comes to Asian American representation in film and TV, stepping out of the comedy box and proving himself a versatile actor, taking on blockbusters like Star Trek, TV sitcoms like the underrated Selfie, groundbreaking features like Better Luck Tomorrow, innovative indies like Kogonada’s visually stunning Columbus, and, of course, Aneesh Chaganty’s innovative Searching (in wide release Aug. 31), which uses social media and multiple screens to tell a traditional thriller about a father frantically searching for his missing daughter.
Written by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian, Searching falls into the growing genre of digitally-centric movies that use several devices rather than the traditional camera set-up to tell the movie. But instead of being gimmicky, Searching builds on the genre with a compelling story.
“It was a page turner — it was a very unusual script,” Cho tells Deadline. “They couldn’t use the normal format to describe all the computer screens, so it was much more prose, it read much more like prose.”
With an introductory sequence that hooks you in, Cho said that you couldn’t guess the outcome until the bitter end — but it’s the way that it was shot that makes the movie dynamic and innovative when it comes to the screens-within-screens element of a digital thriller.
“I think what we’ve seen is a static shot of the screen and then a static shot of the computer user from the viewpoint of the webcam,” Cho points out. “We had half of that — we had a static shot on my face but then in addition to that, my character’s point of view behaved like a traditional camera in that it zoomed and panned.”
In addition, Chaganty implemented time cuts within the film, which isn’t common with this type of movie. Cho also adds that although they were exploring this new form of filmmaking, they strictly adhered to the rules of screenwriting to tell a “story on screens.”
“This movie’s beat sheet was tight and I think, even in that 35-page version that I first read,” Cho said. He added that the movie wasn’t trying to reinvent a new perspective for character or writing. Instead, they were trying to do something that was more technically new.
Cho continues, “Not to say the story isn’t fresh — there are so many elements of the story that are fresh, but they were determined to make it feel like a traditional thriller and it does.”
The release of Searching is hot off the heels of the continued success of Crazy Rich Asians and the admiration of Netflix’s To All The Boys I Loved Before based on Jenny Han’s book and starring Lana Condor. With an Asian family consisting of Cho, Michelle La, Joseph Lee, and Sara Sohn at the center of the story and a Chaganty as director, Searching adds to the resurgence of Asian American films that hasn’t been felt since The Joy Luck Club and the aforementioned Better Luck Tomorrow.
This moment has been celebrated and empowered the Asian American community. This streak hopefully won’t be just a brief blip on the map but a movement that continues and comes to a point where it’s normal to have many Asian American-centric films out. Cho continues to grind and hustle after 20 years. In addition to Searching, he can be seen in Ike Barinholtz’s political satire The Oath with Tiffany Haddish as well as the remake of the Japanese horror The Grudge. It was also recently announced that he will be teaming with Master of None‘s Alan Yang for the Netflix drama Tigertail. Even with his slate of projects, he says that focusing on the “gatekeepers” of the industry is key to keep the momentum going and not having to wait decades for another moment like this.
“For me, I’m saying I’m done with caring about their permission,” he said. “I don’t want to empower the gatekeepers more than they deserve, meaning that they’ll go where we tell them to go and they’ll see what we show them.”
Although many have pinned The Joy Luck Club as the touchstone for contemporary Asian American film, Cho points out that there have been many before and after the 1993 film such as Chan is Missing and The Namesake.
“I think there’s one way to look at it and say, ‘Gee, there hasn’t been much,” and on the other hand, I think you can pull back and say ‘Look, we keep coming back, and the movement keeps growing’,” said Cho. “There are more filmmakers added to that roster. There are more actors, there’s more talent.”
In regards to the current Asian American renaissance Cho said, “I think you can pull back and see that it’s really a wave that started a long time ago and is continuing to crest.”