Review: Harrowing Finding Yingying Is a True-Crime Documentary that Elevates Humanity in its Grief

While 2020 has been rife with crappiness, Chicago-based Kartemquin Films is having a bit of a year (co-founder Gordon Quinn’s battle with COVID-19 early in the pandemic notwithstanding). In October, the documentary powerhouse released one of the best limited series of the year in City So Real, a project by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) that criss-crosses the city and its diverse citizenry in the year leading up to the 2019 mayoral election. It’s a compelling watch for Chicagoans, to be sure, and the nation as a whole (and is now streaming in its entirety on Hulu). Now, in partnership with MTV Documentaries, the studio releases Finding Yingying, the harrowing and heartbreaking debut feature documentary from Jiayan ‘Jenny’ Shi, a graduate of the organization’s filmmaker incubator Diverse Voices In Docs.

Finding Yingying
Image courtesy of MTV Documentaries

Ostensibly the story of Yingying Zhang’s 2017 disappearance on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Finding Yingying is ultimately a work of compassion and necessity as it documents the search for Zhang in the weeks following her abduction, her family’s hope-turned-grief as her fate is discovered and the lingering effects of the events on everything from Zhang’s devoted boyfriend to Chinese-American diplomatic relations. With intimate access to Zhang’s diaries (which Shi narrates in poignant voiceover moments) and her role in supporting Zhang’s family, in America to search for their lost daughter (Shi helps the cause as a translator between the family and authorities), the filmmaker shares Zhang’s story as if from the inside out rather than as some distanced, unnamed documentarian. In this way, the film becomes even more affecting than its tragic subject matter already is, Shi offering glimpses into the process—both of investigating and grieving—rarely seen on screen.

Yingying Zhang arrived in the United States in April 2017 to study photosynthesis in crops at U of I’s school of agriculture. She arrived, with high hopes and optimistic about her new adventure, as a fish very much out of water in the most Midwestern of American towns, often feeling small and lost on the sprawling university campus where community and connection aren’t always easy to cultivate. Just two months later, she was finally settling in and planning to sign a lease on a new apartment; running late for the appointment, she accepted a ride from a stranger, a man who would ultimately be charged with her abduction and murder. Though the events of her disappearance and the following search and investigation were tracked closely in the news, to reveal more about the story here would compromise Shi’s careful reconstruction of Zhang’s final days, the massive search for her and the revelations around what really happened. As a true-crime narrative, Shi ably assembles a timeline to keep audiences guessing each step of the way.

But where the film truly becomes something special is in the humanity Shi elevates out of tragedy. Some of the film’s most compelling moments aren’t in the retelling of court proceedings or police investigations; instead, one would be hard-pressed to find a more gut-wrenching moment in film this year than when Zhang’s mother breaks down in grief, an outburst as startling as it is entirely understandable. In the film, it’s a scene that’s impossible to look away from; recalling it, one is inescapably struck by the deep, undeniable pain Shi captures, a testament to her ability to forge trust and intimacy with her subjects, even in their most vulnerable moments. This thread of humanity is evident throughout Finding Yingying, and it serves to lift Zhang’s story out of the well-worn narrative of victim caught unawares by a monster and instead instill in viewers the very real, very relatable message that no one deserves to be forgotten, and that regardless of language, country of origin, beliefs or class, grief is grief, tragedy is tragedy, loss is loss and hope is hope.

Finding Yingying is now playing in virtual cinemas, including Siskel Film Center’s “Film Center from Your Sofa” program. A portion of your rental goes to support the venue while it’s closed.

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Lisa Trifone