At 26, Yingying Zhang leaves China to study abroad in the United States at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A young ecologist filled with dreams, she aspired to one day be a married professor with children. Studying in the U.S. would provide her with greater opportunities, so her family back in Nanping, China did whatever it took to nurture her dreams. Just within weeks of arriving in Spring 2017, Yingying mysteriously disappeared after getting into an unknown vehicle. Her family along with her dedicated boyfriend travel to the states (some for the first time ever) to help with search efforts – vowing to never stop until they bring her home. Upon discovering Yingying’s disappearance from friends, video journalist and filmmaker Jiayan “Jenny” Shi joins the family and documents their journey as they desperately navigate through a foreign country. Thus Finding Yingying is born, a documentary of the Zhang family’s perilous journey within Yingying’s case in real-time. Shi not only utilizes key players in Yingying’s life, but also exclusive archival material such as photos, videos, and diary entries on behalf of the family. Through Shi’s touching deep dive into Yingying’s persona, career, and complexities – the audience gets to know her on a close level, understanding who she was: a beautiful, hopeful young woman that inspired others.
Unlike other true crime documentaries, Finding Yingying focuses on the victim’s family and story – less on the perpetrator of the crime. Although the film shares the devastating details of the crime, it primarily focuses on her life and relationships with others. Emphasizing her individuality, heart, and character elevates the documentary. This makes it more than just a retelling of a crime – it is a story of love, overcoming hardships, and strength.
Bouncing from heartwarming to heartwrenching moments, there is not a second of dullness as Shi shifts from a tender photograph of Yingying’s childhood to her family sitting outside her apartment, waiting for her to return. Jarring as the transition may be, it is a stunning reminder that it was not just the Zhang family that lost her – we lost Yingying too. Making it more painfully obvious, the rawness of the loss and hardship of her death reveals itself as the documentary carries on. Shi does not shy away from the honesty behind the feelings and events that collide; from the incomprehensible anger of Yingying’s parents, immense disappointment from peers, to the cruel realizations of her boyfriend as they unfold.
Shi’s connection to Yingying adds a personal layer to the film that no one else could replicate. As a Chinese national that was studying in the U.S. herself, she is able to empathize and comprehend the Zhangs’ suffering. From an outsider’s perspective, it is understandable that the pain her family feels is immeasurable. However, she reveals more than just the pain. She uncovers the difficulty of understanding a foreign culture, the anger boiling at the difference of the judicial system, and the struggle of overcoming a language barrier. Other filmmakers, while they may be able to capture the tragedy, could not highlight the hardships like Shi did. With her narrative style and documentation skills, Shi makes us understand more than just the crime.
Another interesting contrast is how the film is set up chronologically. Many true crime documentaries start at the end. They reveal the criminal’s motive, intricate factors, and then retell the crime – often with dramatic interpretations of what occurred. Finding Yingying defies these storytelling expectations and instead opens with Yingying’s diary entries, letting us know more about the victim than the coldblooded, cruel perpetrator. Like the family, the audience is left in the dark about what ensued (unless you were aware of the crime beforehand). When the details come to the family, we learn at the same time, allowing the shock to set in.
Shi’s labor of love is a truly endearing work. Tugging at the heartstrings and showing the difficulty of loss and the unknown. It is one of the most unique crime documentaries produced, standing above the rest thanks to creative structure, very personal connections, and emphasis on the victim, not the criminal. Essentially, Shi has taken the traditional true crime documentary and transformed it into a work that illustrates hardship, suffering, and unconditional hope. As the credits roll, Finding Yingying leaves a lasting impression that is sad and unsettling. Like the Zhang family, we will not forget Yingying or her story.
Finding Yingying was chosen to premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. Director Jiayan “Jenny” Shi and her film won the Special Jury Recognition – Breakthrough Voice Award in the documentary feature category.
Follow creative director Courtney Le on Twitter: @nidavellir_