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In 'Searching,' A Father Looks For His Missing Daughter By Tracking Her Online

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

I'm Ailsa Chang with All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ULRICH SCHNAUSS' "NOTHING HAPPENS IN JUNE")

CHANG: We're looking this month at the gap between how we portray ourselves online and who we really are. A new movie nails this disconnect. It's called "Searching." And it's told entirely through screens. The plot unfolds on computer screens, phone screens, TV screens. What director Aneesh Chaganty wanted to do was tap into how familiar it is to scroll through life this way.

ANEESH CHAGANTY: Basically the opening of the film is a six- to seven-minute montage that takes you through 16 years of this family's life as told through the family's desktop computer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SEARCHING")

SARA SOHN: (As Pamela Nam Kim) The four and the one - that's your two. There you go - four, one, four, one - and then five. When you're ready, you can switch to five.

CHAGANTY: And as time goes by, you know, websites change. The kid grows up. The family kind of evolves. We see their relationships develop. And it ends in a little bit of tragedy, but we kind of watch it through the eyes of our technology.

CHANG: And through that lens, we then watch the father, David Kim, who's played by John Cho, searching for his teenage daughter. The film explores how we use technology and what it does to us.

CHAGANTY: We had this idea - like, OK, what if we make this movie set in a world where everyone is connected. And at the heart of it is a father and daughter who are disconnected. And the entire film is basically about how to kind of reconnect those wires.

CHANG: I was also struck by how well you were able to generate suspense with just technology - like, the dot, dot, dot that pops up when someone's writing a text message and you're just waiting to see what the words are. Or there'll be like a pile of missed FaceTime calls you wake up to in the morning. And I can relate to the panic that that would generate if I saw that first thing in the morning. You guys just seem to key into what counts as suspense now in online culture.

CHAGANTY: Yeah, thank you. I mean, it's - you know, it was not the easiest thing to kind of do that. But, you know, I think for us - well, anytime - you know, we live our lives on screens. And I think because we live our lives on screens, we experience a range of emotions on them. You know, whether it's happiness or love or fear or intimidation, like, we kind of experience all of those things.

So for us, you know, when we were writing this, we basically just looked at every single button on a computer screen and on a laptop screen or a tablet or a phone and just asked ourselves what each of those things makes us feel. You know, what do those three dots bubbling come up - when they go away and they disappear for, like, 10 minutes, like, what does that mean to us? What does it mean to delete trash or empty trash?

CHANG: Yeah, the finality of that.

CHAGANTY: Exactly. Every one of those has emotional significance to it. And for us, we wanted to just sort of, like, exploit each of those underlying meanings.

CHANG: Ultimately, this is a film about how disconnected life onscreen is from real life. They're, like, parallel realities. You talk about how the father and daughter at the center of this movie - I mean, they seem so close when they're chatting on their devices. But he actually doesn't know a lot about her. Like, there's this moment in the movie when John Cho's character David is trying to call up his daughter's friends. And he's just going down her Facebook friend list.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEARCHING")

JOHN CHO: (As David Kim) She has friends, right?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Define friends.

CHO: (As David Kim) Do people invite her to things?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I think people occasionally invite her to things.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) She just never comes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) She keeps to herself a lot.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) She's quiet.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) I did see her eat lunch alone.

CHO: (David Kim) On Thursday?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Every day.

CHANG: At that moment, I just thought, what does that feel like when you're discovering your daughter is this really lonely person and you had no idea?

CHAGANTY: I know. It was this idea that, you know, online, everyone that you know is technically a friend. It's not a contact list. It's a friend list. And for us, you know, what is the difference between an online friend and a real friend - not to the crazy level of like every person online hates you - but just a level of, like, are they actually your friends?

CHANG: The thing is I feel like we can all accept that there's this fiction that happens when we curate who we are online versus who we are in real life. But when you visit that disconnect, when a father and a daughter confront it, like, head-on, it's heartbreaking. That's what this film taught me.

CHAGANTY: Yeah, I guess so. You know, it's - yeah, it's tough. But, you know, this film is really about how much technology can disconnect us. I would say yes, and I would also say no to that. You know, I think while technology in this film is the root of the problem, it's also at the heart of the solution as well. And I think for me, you know, as a former Google employee, you know, I think technology gets a genuinely unfairly bad and consistently bad rap in media. I think we're always consumed with information telling us that we're addicted to our phones. We're obsessed with social media. You know, technology is going to kill us. Buy canned foods right now and hide.

CHANG: (Laughter).

CHAGANTY: You know, it's - you know, I think there's a pervasive negative kind of connotation that we have with technology. But it's like looking at any tool - let's say a hammer - and saying the hammer is bad when in reality, like, the hammer is bad, hammer is good depending on the way that you use the hammer. And I think what we wanted to do with "Searching" was kind of for once show a more holistic perspective of technology.

CHANG: Yeah. There's also this whole subtext that spoke to me about growing up Asian-American in Silicon Valley. That describes who I am. I grew up in Silicon Valley. I read that you grew up in San Jose. I'm curious. Why did you choose to center this story on an Asian-American family in Silicon Valley?

CHAGANTY: The Silicon Valley part has a lot more I think importance to me on this one. And I'll explain why - because the Asian-American part to me - the answer is, why not? The Silicon Valley part, you know - the film takes place on screens. I think, why not set it in the heart of Silicon Valley where all of these tech devices and websites that David is actually interacting with - we are, like, literally set in the world where these were all created in.

But the Asian-American element to it is - you know, it's important as well because, like, for us, when we had an opportunity to make this film, we realized, like, why not give this to - have a character and a family at the heart of this that is a group of people that we've always wanted to see on screens, which is a version of ourselves?

CHANG: What I liked about is this extra layer of, you know - Asian Americans kind of blend in really well in Silicon Valley because there's so many. So if you wanted to pick a family that people think they know about but really there's something totally different going on beneath the surface, I feel like the Asian-American family in Silicon Valley is that character, you know?

CHAGANTY: Perfect. Yeah, perfect. No, I'm glad that there is additional meaning there. That wasn't part of the - that wasn't part of the discussion early on in the creative. But, I mean, I'm glad that there is extra meaning. I think to us, it was just like this element of why not. You know, this is a movie that doesn't actually address any element of being, quote, unquote, "Asian-American" or, quote, unquote, "Korean-American" in the plot of the movie.

CHANG: Well, the photo of her Korean mom hovering over her while she was practicing piano - I'm like, that's an Asian picture, right?

CHAGANTY: Sure, sure, sure, yeah, yeah. We get comparisons on that one. But again, if we change this - if we cast a Japanese-American family, an Indian-American family, an African-American family, like, we would not have changed anything in the script apart from the last name.

CHANG: Aneesh Chaganty is the director of "Searching." Thank you very much for being with us. This was a lot of fun.

CHAGANTY: Thanks, Ailsa. This is so cool to be here.

CHANG: "Searching" is out later this month. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.