‘Searching’ for a New Kind of Thriller with John Cho

After a long weekend of interviews, John Cho walked into a room full of Asian and Asian American reporters anxiously waiting to talk to him about his new film Searching, a mystery thriller that not only uses a new medium of filming via the lens of your everyday devices, but is, also, the first of its genre to star an Asian American lead… ever. This movie is important to us and Cho knows it.

In Searching, which releases in select cities today before opening nationwide next weekend, Cho plays David Kim, a father whose 16-year old daughter, Margot (Michelle La), goes missing. A local investigation is opened with a detective assigned to the case. Desperate to find his daughter, David decides to look for her himself using his daughter’s laptop for clues to where she could be. The entire film is told through these technology devices we use every day to communicate.

It sounds a bit confusing when you read the premise and Cho agrees, but he was still intrigued with the idea of it and was convinced by the story. In the end, he loved it.

“I didn’t think it sounded like a movie,” Cho said. “It sounded like a YouTube video or something — like a stunt. I didn’t want to do a stunt. So, I said ‘no’ to the movie. But, I was fascinated with the story. The genre, I was really into doing. The script really read well. But, I said ‘no.’ I didn’t think it was something I wanted to do.”

Director Aneesh Chaganty really wanted Cho for the film and kept going after the 46-year-old actor. Chaganty had written David Kim specifically for Cho. “To answer ‘why John,’ [its because] he’s a movie star and underutilized,” said Chaganty. “He’s an incredible actor who should be in more things and isn’t in many things.”

Cho finally agreed to meet and instantly clicked with the budding director. “The point of our meeting is ‘is this going to be a movie?’ He convinced me it was. We just kept saying this has got to be cinema.”

The Searching director and his star.

Cho really liked the idea of starring in a thriller and to showcase something new for Asian Americans. Last year, Cho starred in the neo-noir film, Gemini, where he played a detective investigating the murder of a Hollywood starlet. Cho said ‘yes’ to the film for many reasons, but his primary reason was to put an Asian face to the role.

“I was like that’s an Asian noir detective. Done. Yes,” admitted Cho. “It’s not everything, but it’s a thing that gives me joy to see a face that we’re not supposed to see. Then, you put that face in there and it’s like ‘Ah, we got one.’”

With Searching, Cho also puts a face to something rarely seen in cinema — a normal Korean American family. The impact of this family dynamic didn’t hit Cho until they screened the film at the Sundance Film Festival this year.

“We showed it to the audience and seeing people see it [was what] really brought it alive to me,” Cho explained. “The big difference between anything I’ve done was to see a family. That was a really big deal to me. It ties into this, for me, that often Asian cultures are seen as ‘you run away from that to find love somewhere else.’ That’s how Asian families are usually portrayed in mainstream media.”

He continues to explain the dynamics between the family, “This is about family love. Not like begrudging family love, not ‘we found out a way to not.’ We start at love. We start knowing that they love each other like crazy. They are hitting a rough spot because these two characters are grieving for the same person — individually grieving. That’s their disconnect. But, they love each other and they love mom. There is no dysfunction there.”

John Cho and Sara Sohn in Searching

Cho has been an advocate for Asian American representation, although he has a complicated relationship with the word “representation.” At a Searching Q&A with the “They Call Us Bruce” podcast, Cho said he feels the word comes with limitations because it’s so political. “It’s borrowing a word from politics. It’s not what we do. It’s a positive word but it implies, perhaps, that we ought to show [mainstream media what they want] when we can show whatever we want. We can be whatever we want. We can write whatever we want. It implies these limitations. It has these strong perfumes, so you think it’s really nice.”

But, despite the wording, Cho understands that it’s important and understands that people are going to keep bringing it up in interviews. He’s accepted it because it’s necessary.

“I sort of feel like its equivalency is like Black History Month or Asian Heritage Month,” Cho said. “When we all know the history well enough, then we don’t need to have the month anymore. But, until it’s normal, maybe we do have to mention it. Until there is no needing to talk about it, we’ll just have to keep talking about it. I don’t sweat it. It’s something that we are obviously still working out as a country. There will come a day when no one feels that impulse to talk about it. The impulse is still there and there’s a reason for it.”

Cho did suggest a possible indicator of knowing when Asian Americans have “made it” in Hollywood.

“We will know it because you won’t have to ask the question because we are all in agreement,” he explained. “The flip side is the Chris Rock joke, ‘Jackie Robinson isn’t the mark of success, it’s when a guy bats .187 and still has a job in the major leagues.’ It’s the privilege to fail and keep working. That’s when you know we’ve arrived. If you see me make a stinker and I’m still around, I think that’s probably the mark of real progress.”