‘Finding Yingying’: Listening to the Voices of Three Women ☆☆☆

“Finding Yingying” begins with a howl of despair. It’s the voice of a mother, speaking the international language of a great tragedy–outliving one’s offspring. By the end, director Jiayan Jenny Shi has conjured up the image of a promising young scientist whose exciting adventure into a new world ended in death. At a time when anti-Asian sentiment is rising in the US, “Finding Yingying” is a must-see. 

There is no mystery as to who killed Yingying Zhang (章莹颖 21 Dec 1990-9 June 2017) in Urbana, Illinois. Zhang arrived in Illinois in April 2017 to research in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Six weeks later, she was kidnapped, raped and murdered on 9 June 2017 by a former UIUC physics grad student Brendt Allen Christensen. Christensen was convicted in 2019 and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on 18 July 2019. 

If you’re looking for a true crime story, “Finding Yingying” isn’t it. Shi is less concerned with Christensen, and rather focuses on Zhang’s family and her friends. Through them, and Zhang’s diary, Shi attempts to show viewers who Zhang was and could have been, but she also explores who she is as a journalist.

At the time of Zhang’s disappearance, Shi was at the end of her one-year journalism graduate student program at Northwestern University in Chicago. Shi became involved with the search for Zhang as a concerned member of the Chinese community in Illinois and had not originally intended to produce a documentary. As such, you can expect some shaky camera moments and some moments when Shi wonders if her ethics are shaky. As the search draws on and becomes less hopeful, Shi wonders if she’s exploiting her relationship with  Zhang’s family. These are healthy questions for any journalist.

Shi and Zhang both attended Peking University. Shi graduated with a BA in broadcast journalism in 2016. She spent the summer of 2015 at the University of British Columbia, Canada, studying journalism. Entering a graduate journalism program in Chicago, Shi was still in classes in early June of 2017. Zhang received her BS from Sun Yat-Sen University (Guangdong, China) in environmental science in 2013, ranking second in her class behind her fiancé, Xiaolin Hou. Hou and Zhang both attended graduate school at Peking University with Zhang graduating in 2016. (Hou received his PhD in 2019).

According to the trial transcripts, Zhang traveled to UIUC because Professor Kaiyu Zhang had provided her with the opportunity be a visiting scholar researching photosynthesis in soybeans and corn. Her plans were to marry Hou that October and to apply to the UIUC doctoral program. Seeking cheaper accommodations, on June 9, 2017, Zhang disappeared on her way to meet with an apartment manager.

Shi provides a thoughtful commentary and narrates parts of Zhang’s diary, giving voice to the hopeful thought lonesome young scholar on an ultimately tragic adventure. The visceral reaction of Yingying’s mother (Lifeng Ye) brings emotion so raw to the screen that it’s almost unbearable. You don’t need to speak Chinese to understand her emotions.  

With “Finding Yingying,” Shi has become a new voice in the landscape of documentary films. Yet the documentary asks another question: When American universities profit from Chinese nationals coming to study, are there ways the colleges could better prepare them? This is an intelligent, sensitive look at a tragedy that gives voice to the victim over the perpetrator and forces one to see the US from an East Asian woman’s point of view.

“Finding Yingying” won the VC FilmFest Emerging Filmmaker Award, the SXSW Film Festival Special Jury Award, the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival VTeddy Award for Best Documentary Feature, the Loudoun Arts Film Festival Award for Best Documentary Feature and the BendFilm Festival Special Jury Prize for Best Documentary Debut. “Finding Yingying” is available through virtual cinemas. In Mandarin and English with English subtitles. 

For more information visit FindingYingying.com.

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