Searching, John Cho
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Credit: Screen Gems

Searching for the next Asian American blockbuster

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Aug 27, 2018, 12:00 PM EDT

Fresh off the heels of Crazy Rich Asians' groundbreaking "gold" opening — and even more impressive "gold" second weekend, which retained nearly 95 percent of its audience — Hollywood is finally paying attention to the long underserved Asian American film-going audience. Once the Jon M. Chu-directed rom-com became a certified blockbuster franchise, we wondered how long it would take for the studio system to release another movie created by and starring Asian Americans?

Turns out, not that long.

On August 24, Sony Pictures and Screen Gems released Searching, a thriller co-written and directed by Aneesh Chaganty and (literally) #StarringJohnCho, in nine select cities. Searching made over $40,000 per screening, the top per-screen average of the weekend, which bodes well for the movie's nationwide expansion on August 31.

Following the story of a father's (Cho) quest to find his missing teenage daughter (Michelle La), Searching is masterfully told using nothing more than computer and phone screens. This movie takes the phrase "shot on an iPhone" to a whole new level and will do for digital screens what The Blair Witch Project and Chronicle did for the found footage genre. The difference, of course, is that for the first time in a mainstream thriller, the story centers around an Asian American family's story.

What's even more groundbreaking about Searching, however, is that the movie is about Asian-American characters without having to be about Asian-Americans. As Changanty told Variety, "The movies that I grew up on — the mysteries, the thrillers, the action films — they never explain why the race of the lead character had to be that race, in order to break into the CIA or jump out of a plane, you know? It just had nothing to do with that."

Instead, Searching gets to be an Asian-American movie without having to justify why it stars Asian Americans. In an interview with GQ, Cho explains this paradox further, saying, "it's ironic, because [the movie]'s not saying anything about [Asian American representation], but not saying anything about it is saying a lot about it, you know?"

Since Cho doesn't have to explain why his role is a win for representation, it allows audiences to just appreciate his performance and onscreen magnetism — which is important since he's literally in every scene. Having a mainstream thriller like this hitting theaters at any other time would not be a big deal, and that's the point.

After debuting at Sundance where it won an Audience Award, Searching was quickly acquired by Sony for summer distribution. But who knew it would be debuting at such a watershed moment for Asian Americans' mainstream visibility?

The Coalition for Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, or CAPE, has dubbed this month #AsianAugust, and it isn't hard to see why. In addition to Crazy Rich Asians, this month has also seen the release of Netflix's To All the Boys I've Loved Before, starring Lana Condor and based on the popular YA series by Jenny Han, which has generated just as much buzz among the teen set as any movie in recent history. So in the span of a couple weeks, moviegoers have been given the opportunity to see different types of stories in different genres — the romantic comedy, the teen movie, the thriller — from the points of view of the AAPI community.

To All the Boys I've Loved Before

Credit: Netflix

Of course, three movies with (East) Asian faces should not be the be-all and end-all of Asian-American representation in Hollywood, but hopefully, this is the beginning of the kind of "narrative plentitude" Asian-American critics have been demanding for a long time. In an interview with Jen Yamato of the Los Angeles Times, Crazy Rich Asians star Constance Wu cited both Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen and MacArthur Genius recipient Chimamanda Adichie on the dangers of having one story represent an entire community: "People are like, 'What is the next project you think Asian Americans should do?' There is no one project. We just need more projects."

Lest we forget, later this year, Asian Australian James Wan will direct Native Hawaiian Jason Momoa in Aquaman. And in January, production will begin on Birds of Prey, DC's all-female team-up directed by Cathy Yan, written by Christina Hobson, and featuring the first live-action interpretation of Cassandra Cain, aka Batgirl. Not to mention the dozens of projects on hold, whose development depended on the box office results of Crazy Rich Asians.

Which brings me back to Searching. Audiences nationwide already have the opportunity to prove that Crazy Rich Asians isn't a fluke. In fact, many of the people behind the #GoldOpen campaign that bought out theaters for Crazy Rich Asians are doing it all over again for Searching. A strong box office showing for Searching can demonstrate once and for all that Asian-Americans are movie stars with box office clout. More importantly, it can finally put to rest the misconception that they aren't.