SEARCHING IS the first mainstream thriller featuring an Asian-American lead, but it is heralded for its unprecedented casting because it never particularizes his race. This hints at a more normalized onscreen diversity, and even if this film is not the panacea to undoing all institutional racism in cinema, films treating race as secondary to narrative might be.
Searching for what?
Searching follows David Kim, portrayed by Korean-American actor John Cho, as he unravels the sudden disappearance of his teenage daughter, Margot. Audiences watch the film from the vantage point of a webcam as David unspools Margot’s online identity, falling down one online rabbit-hole after another as he searches for the truth. Constantly swelling in the background is an uneasily intimate and almost trespassory tone, because watching David trawl through Margot’s messages, social media and emails is like witnessing him peel apart and dissect the layers of her private, second self.
Searching debuted on Aug. 24, 2018, initially to only nine theatres in the U.S., but it was a commercial success nevertheless. It sold 41,400 tickets per theatre on average, raking in $20 million in the U.S. alone, and $26.3 million overseas, including $13.1 million in South Korea. It received positive reviews, maintaining a 93% approval rating on review aggregator site, Rotten Tomatoes. Notably, Director Aneesh Changanty’s innovation in using smartphones, browser windows and surveillance footage as narrative conduits, and Cho’s “career-turning” performance garnered praise from film critics at Variety, Rolling Stone, The New York Times and many more publications.
In filmic history, Asians experience severe underrepresentation. A study by USC Annenberg School of Communication demonstrates that Asians receive only 1 out of 20 speaking roles, and 1% of lead roles in Hollywood, but they spend much onscreen time being grossly caricatured. A notable example is the practice of “yellow-face,” which exaggerates “oriental” features: slanted eyes, overbite, and a mustard-yellow complexion. Pitting “Asianness” against “whiteness” reinforced the former’s peculiarity and savagery while engendering the othering of their cultures. The default Hollywood palette tacitly became shades of whiteness, meaning any coloration became “other,” fortifying an “us vs. them” mentality.
The successor of “yellow-face”, whitewashing, still pervades contemporary filmmaking. Whitewashing occurs where a white actor is cast in what is canonically a minority’s role, like Scarlett Johannsson as Motoko Kusanagi in 2017’s Ghost In The Shell. It also refers to the anachronistic insertion of white faces, like Matt Damon in 2016’s The Great Wall. The film employed a white savior narrative, depicting Damon as a European mercenary defending the Great Wall despite virtually no European presence in medieval China. When criticized for attempting to whitewash history, Damon asserted that his savior role was intentionally European, hence he was not depriving minorities of casting opportunities. Nevertheless, he missed the point as to why it was written white, not Chinese.
Both practices reinforce institutional racism and erasure of the Asian presence, and spawn the same half-baked, xenophobic excuses, according to Asian Studies scholar Eugene Wong. The first excuse—that “Hollywood does not have enough Asian roles”—indicates that industries stagnate on characterizations of people whose assumed racial affinities are solely based on descent. The second excuse—that “Hollywood has no Asian movie stars”—is paradoxical because Asians cannot become “stars” without opportunities to build their acting portfolio. Casting them only in “deemed” Asian roles endows reductive stereotypes. For example, casting Korean actress Claudia Kim as Nagini* in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald caused controversy because casting an Asian woman as a witch cursed into a snake’s body reifies stereotypes of submissiveness, sexual objectification, and a “dragon lady.”** Asian faces in media are already rare, but relegating them to archaic stereotypes further inhibits cinema from reaching a universalism that transcends race.
John Cho as John Doe
However, big studios see green before any other color. Not billing Asian leads is rooted in the misconception that having no “star” quality means not profiting upon the film’s release. When William Yu realized this logic’s fault in 2016, #StarringJohnCho was born: a Twitter-originated movement where Cho, recognized for his roles in the Harold and Kumar and Star Trek series, was photoshopped into movie posters originally featuring white leading actors. Cho was reimagined as the dreamboat love interest, an all-powerful Marvel superhero and a Bond-esque superspy, roles suggestive of work he might land in a chauvinist-free alternative universe.
But his role in Searching is not of that sensationalist caliber. While the film itself is a web-thriller, Cho’s role is fundamentally domestic, as the father of a nuclear family. In fact, his identity is not stretched past his paternal role at all. His race is unaddressed because what Searching indiscriminately exploits is a parent’s love for their child and the universal fear of losing them. According to actress Sara Sohn, who plays David’s wife, the film script did not specifically characterize the protagonist or his family as Asian-American, nor any other ethnicity. Race was ancillary to epithets of father, mother, husband, wife, daughter, and Californian.
Leading Asian men are rare. But the fact that David Kim could have been White, Black, Hispanic or any other race without influencing the narrative demonstrates a fluidity and transparency barely observable in Asian characters. Being Korean rather than White means that even if he is not a “default” face to the audience, genericity is his only hallmark; he is a John Doe*** protagonist who just happens to be Asian.
In search of something more
While Hollywood’s systemic racial bias cannot be retroactively undone, it can be gradually normalized through exposure. Searching was released in the same month as the Netflix adaptation of novel To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and the wildly successful Crazy Rich Asians. The three constellate to spearhead #AsianAugust, a month recognized as a giant leap for Asian cinema-kind. Crazy Rich Asians wears its culture on its sleeve, loudly celebrating aspects of Chinese, Malaysian and Singaporean traditions. Conversely, representation in To All The Boys is comparable to Searching; protagonist Lara Jean’s half-Korean heritage is barely visible because ethnic specificity is not pivotal in conveying the romantic narrative. However, it is not simply dismissible either. The author Jenny Han rebuffed previous film offers wanting to race-swap her protagonist as retaining her Asian spirit was fundamental to the character, whatever the narrative.
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Ultimately, greater onscreen visibility for Asians will gradually neutralize the monotony of White Hollywood, even if it imparts the Asian race with the same default “invisibility” whiteness gets now. Minority representation is more akin to a continuum than a finite spectrum, hence the severity of “Asianness” is tangential to the fact of representation itself. Films like Searching cannot be compartmentalized as cultural movies, but they do prophesize the endgame for diverse cinema, where we are past the moment of talking about representation. Until then, representation in any positive reiteration is the next best reality.
*Dragon lady: Stereotype of Asian women as deceitful, domineering or mysterious.
**John Doe: A hypothetical average man, used where the identity of a person is unknown.
***Nagini: The mythical pet snake of the main villain in the Harry Potter franchise.