Reel Life #18: Searching, Dragon Inn, Alpha, and An Autumn Afternoon

I didn’t realize this until I began typing up my monthly update post, but I think it’s worth mentioning that I’ve already seen as many films in theaters in September as I did in the entirety of August. Now that we’re reaching the end of the summer blockbuster period, I’ll be interested to see what ends up getting released in the Oscar season.

Searching by Aneesh Chaganty (2018)

David Kim and his wife Pamela were loving parents of a girl named Margot. They shared the same computer and would upload videos of their exploits to YouTube. However these good times were cut tragically short when Pamela died from lymphoma. Since Pamela’s death, David is much more protective of Margot, forcing her to go to piano lessons she dislikes. One night, she leaves for a study group, not responding to any of her father’s calls. This aspect is normal and a symptom of the deteriorating relationship between the two. Awakening one day, he realizes she had tried to call him three times. In the morning, his attempts at calling her back prove futile. To make matters worse, when he calls her piano teacher, she claims his daughter cancelled her lessons six months ago. Shortly thereafter, he calls the police to file a missing person’s report. Assigned to the case is Detective Rosemary Vick, who is herself a parent. Knowing time is of the essence, David is prepared to move heaven and Earth to get his daughter back.

When it comes to my moviegoing experiences, how much I know about a film I’m about to see varies. Sometimes I get endless trailers promoting a film while other times, I’m going in completely blind. This would be an example of the latter. Despite Rotten Tomatoes proving to be a rather hit-or-miss metric for determining the quality of films – especially as of late – it’s still how I learn about a lot of them. Searching is a film I happened to notice on the site out of the blue. In all honesty, I vaguely remember seeing a trailer for this film, but I had completely forgotten about it by the time it came out. Moreover, 2018 has had a lot of critically acclaimed directorial debuts. Despite their universal praise, I’d say my personal feelings toward them have been mixed. While Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting were rare examples of good satirical films from the 2010s, Hereditary was an overall wash and Eighth Grade massively overhyped. That leads us to Searching – the directorial debut of Aneesh Chaganty.

The way Searching is presented brings to mind that one episode of Modern Family that was completely told from the perspective of a computer screen. It almost seems like the evolved form of the found footage genre pioneered by The Blair Witch Project in how the viewers’ experience is pasted together using footage that exists in-universe. They come from a variety of sources such as YouTube videos, news footage, and security camera footage, though a majority of it is viewed from David’s computer screen.

So with all of this in mind, the biggest question those who haven’t seen this film is: “Was Mr. Chaganty able to weave a narrative out of these snippets without being overly distracting about it?” It’s fair question to ask given how even the comparatively minor change of switching to a handheld camera resulted in the poorly shot You’re Next. More importantly, the answer to that question is a resounding yes.

Normally, I would take quotes such as the ones adorning the above poster as the Hollywood hype machine doing its thing, but “Hitchcock levels of suspense” sums it up perfectly. Searching is exactly what you would get if someone of his caliber made a film like this. When I got fully invested in the plot, I forgot the framing device even existed and wanted to see just how deep this mystery went. It really is one of those films in which you’ll be musing to yourself that it can’t get any weirder and the creators, having anticipated your thoughts, took it as a personal challenge.

Naturally, parenthood is the running theme of this film. Despite being her father, David comes to the startling realization that he doesn’t know his own daughter as well as he thought he did. Nonetheless, he is willing to do anything to save her, and you will be rooting for him the entire time – even when he jumps the gun on his own personal investigation a few times. |Appropriately, the main antagonist is a dark reflection of this theme. As it turns out, Detective Vick concocted an elaborate cover-up to protect her son after she suspected him of murdering Margot. This included getting a false confession out of a drug addict and murdering him in cold blood to make it seem as though he committed suicide. I am also grateful that this film didn’t go the stereotypical route by allowing the detective to get off scot-free; she faces serious jail time for her actions as she should for leaving an innocent young woman to die of dehydration.|

If it’s one subtle thing I really like about Searching, it’s that it’s one of the few films I can think of in recent memory that incorporates technology into its narrative without feeling the need to condemn it. Indeed, it’s amazing how many intriguing character moments get expressed in simple keystrokes in this film. It does show realistic, negative aspects of social media and the people who use it, but it never feels compelled to go over-the-top with it. It presents an entirely realistic situation, and though the plot does take some creative liberties with certain processes, it’s solely to enhance the narrative.

When it comes to its acclaimed films, 2018 has been wildly inconsistent. There have been many reasons for this from sci-fi continuing its self-imposed dark age to satirical works abandoning subtlety, but in terms of the stories themselves, I think Searching allowed me to see exactly how these films fell short. That is to say, many of them would either drum up a lot of suspense only to go several twists too far (e.g. Upgrade and Hereditary) or go the low-risk, low-reward route (e.g. Eighth Grade). Searching could very well be the only film I’ve seen from this year that manages to succeed on both fronts – successfully building up a lot of tension and rewarding audiences for their tenacity to stick with it to the end with a great payoff. Between a stellar, charismatic acting performance from John Cho, an excellent soundtrack, and a labyrinthine plot rife with creative twists, Searching has a rightful claim as one of the best films of 2018.

Rating: 8/10

Dragon Inn by King Hu (1967)

It is the year 1457 during the time of the Ming dynasty. Tsao, the emperor’s first eunuch, has bested his political rival: General Yu Qian. Upon executing him, he sends a group of assassins to hunt down the victim’s children. This leads them to a remote area on the northern Chinese border. Situated there is the Dragon Gate Inn. Theoretically, this mission was over before it began, but complications in the form of a group of strangers with a strong sense of justice just may give Tsao’s forces more than they bargained for.

The journey to me discovering Dragon Inn is straightforward enough. I was very impressed with Red Cliff and I’ve been watching a lot of foreign films this year, so I thought it appropriate to become acquainted with what is considered a classic Chinese film. Doing research on the subject of wuxia films, it didn’t take me long to learn about King Hu and his critically acclaimed works, including Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen.

All in all, I found Dragon Inn to be an enjoyable film. It features a straightforward plot, but it’s well done. The stunt choreography is quite something – even if the shots are a little disjointed at times. It has all of the makings of a typical wuxia film, introducing fantastical elements in an otherwise mundane setting. This is a film in which powerful characters can catch arrows, perform backflips, and cause their opponents to bleed without drawing a blade. |One highlight early on is how the main character manages to dispatch several assassins without even getting up from his chair.| At the same time, it’s not wall-to-wall mindless action; in fact, there’s quite a lot of tension when things are calm because you know a fight is going to break out at any moment.

Though I did enjoy it, I have to admit the ending is a little weak. The main villain, Tsao, faces off against the main characters in what ends up being a rather drawn out fight. This would’ve been perfectly serviceable in most circumstances, but the problem is that Tsao was a nonentity for a majority of the film’s running time. Had he interacted with the leads more often onscreen, the fight would’ve had more weight to it. As it stands, his second-in-command has far more of a presence |– and for his troubles, he gets dispatched rather unceremoniously|. It wasn’t enough to ruin the film’s enjoyability, however, and if you’re looking for a gateway wuxia film, Dragon Inn wouldn’t be a bad choice at all.

Rating: 7/10

Alpha by Albert Hughes (2018)

This story takes place 20,000 years ago in Upper Paleolithic Europe. A tribe of hunter-gatherers is on an expedition to gather food for the coming winter. Chief Tau trains his son, Keda, so he can join the hunting party for the first time. Rho, Tau’s wife, expresses concern that Keda lacks the mental toughness to take an animal’s life. Even when Keda later refuses to kill a downed boar, Tau believes in his son. Eventually, the hunters happen upon a herd of steppe bison. They cause a majority of them to stampede off a cliff, but in the skirmish, Keda is thrown over the edge, apparently breaking his leg and landing on a shelf. Tau tries to rescue him, but another member of the tribe assures him that Keda is dead and they couldn’t possibly reach him regardless. Some time later, Keda awakens only to realize his tribe is nowhere to be found. Using the navigational techniques his father taught him, he must brave the harsh wilderness alone and find his way back to his tribe.

What made me want to check out Alpha is a bit complicated. I’ve heard from various sources that the film was extensively promoted roughly a year ago. After some point, the trailers disappeared entirely. Further research reveals Alpha was shot in Canada from February to April of 2016. From there, it proceeded to spend two years in post-production limbo. I myself wouldn’t see a trailer until earlier this year, and I have to say it didn’t make the film look good. The narrator made the film sound downright cheesy. A certain internet personality put it best when he said the trailers made the film look like a made-for-television Disney Channel production. Its score on Rotten Tomatoes didn’t do the film any favors. While 81% isn’t a bad score, such a consensus wouldn’t be high enough to get my attention. What made me want to see it is when the aforementioned internet personality said he ended up liking the film. With a long weekend awaiting me, I thought I might as well check it out for myself.

It turns out the trailers did indeed fail to do this film justice. The biggest turning point is when Keda wounds a wolf attacking him. When the wolf is separated from its pack, Keda takes pity on it, nursing it back to health. From here, the two develop a close bond that is a clear analogue to the domestication of dogs and their subsequent close relationship with humankind. It’s a great story of survival that pits its lead characters against the elements. In a way, it reminds me of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant – the main difference being that the plot is not catalyzed by an antagonist.

What I like is how much Keda and Alpha learn from each other. Keda overcomes his hesitance to hunt animals while Alpha accepts the boy as part of the pack. By the end, you want to see these two overcome the insurmountable odds. Furthermore, as befitting the time period in which the film is set, the cinematography has a very otherworldly quality to it. If you do intend to see this film, try seeing it on the biggest screen you can find. One of the only things I didn’t like is that the film began with a big action sequence only to flash back to a week before. Telling a story out of order can be effective, but in this case it demonstrates a lack of faith on what is presumably the studio executives’ part. This is especially strange given that the film takes its time building up to everything else. Otherwise, while slightly predictable, Alpha is a fine film that will assuredly hold your interest.

Rating: 7/10

An Autumn Afternoon by Yasujirō Ozu (1962)

Shūhei Hirayama is an aging widower with three children: Kōichi, Michiko, and Kazuo. This film showcases Shūhei’s struggles to maintain relationships between his three children. He spoils his oldest child, Kōichi, who is happily married, to the point where he spends more of his father’s money than his own. Meanwhile, feeling obligated to fill the void left in her mother’s wake, Michiko runs Shūhei’s household, taking care of his youngest son, Kazuo. The youngest child finds it exceedingly difficult to connect with his father. Nonetheless, Shūhei feels it is his duty to arrange a marriage for Michiko – even if it means putting an end to the family’s current dynamic.

Though Tokyo Story is his most well-known work, Floating Weeds was my introduction to Yasujirō Ozu. I leaned of that film when I discovered it was one of Roger Ebert’s all-time favorites. Though I wouldn’t be quick to share the same sentiment, I did enjoy Floating Weeds, and because Mr. Ozu is considered one of Japan’s best directors, I felt it appropriate to check out more of his films. An Autumn Afternoon happened to be the one that caught my attention, and after putting it off for some time, I finally got around to watching it.

Appropriately, An Autumn Afternoon succeeds for many of the same reasons Floating Weeds does. It’s a nice, quiet slice-of-life story depicting the life of a middle-class Japanese family in a postwar era. This is a film that is sold on its characters, and it certainly delivers. Shūhei is decidedly overbearing, but wants what is best for his children. He was also notably a captain in the Imperial Japanese Navy. Subverting expectations when he meets one a former petty officer he served with, he actually felt it was for the best that his country lost the war. The petty officer is taken aback, but ultimately agrees, saying that they no longer have to worry about being bullied by the militaristic types. The rest of the cast is great as well, and you get the sense that these people all know each other well with these subtle character moments.

An Autumn Afternoon was notably Mr. Ozu’s final film before his death, and it was a good note to end on. It’s melancholy, but never overly so, and if you give it a chance, you’ll be surprised how much you end up liking these characters. If you’re seeking an introduction to classic Japanese cinema, An Autumn Afternoon would be a good one to start with.

Rating: 7/10

3 thoughts on “Reel Life #18: Searching, Dragon Inn, Alpha, and An Autumn Afternoon

  1. I liked Searching although I had some issues with how the twist played out, it seemed a bit contrived compared to the rest of the movie. That said, I think it was miles ahead of similar styled films that I saw this year (Unfriended and Unfriended: Dark Web) and it is currently in my top 10 of the year.

    Like

    • The twist was slightly convoluted, but I figured that critics tend to let convoluted plot twists off the hook as long as it makes things worse for everybody, so I thought it only fair to let this one off the hook when it ended up being a major stepping stone towards solving the case and earning a happy ending. Besides, I’d say that aspect is fairly realistic; I’m sure that some people have solved cases like this by simply noticing one small detail in a random internet interaction.

      Either way, I can envision this film being in my personal top ten along with Mission: Impossible – Fallout and Leave No Trace.

      Did Unfriended use a similar style? I heard neither it nor its sequel were really all that good.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Both Unfriended films are entirely from inside a computer screen, mostly using Skype as the interface. The first one was ok, and better than it had any right to be. The second was rather poor.

        Liked by 1 person

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