On June 9, 2017, Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old visiting Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, disappeared. The story of her family’s search for her, and their fight for justice in what tragically became a case of abduction and murder, made international news.
The documentary Finding Yingying paints an intimate portrait of Yingying through personal diary entries and interviews with family, friends, and colleagues. The film is masterfully directed, shot, and produced by Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, her debut with Kartemquin Films. Shi, who went to the same school in China as Yingying, albeit at different times, accomplishes two nearly impossible tasks. She covers this story as it unfolds—including the family’s journey to America from a tiny Chinese village for the first time, their frantic search for Yingying, and undying hope of finding her—and documents the family’s fight to make sure justice was served. And she does this all while poignantly conveying Yingying’s compassionate nature, her deep appreciation for life, and her ambitions to one day become a teacher.
Shi’s film honors Yingying as a person and not just a victim, celebrating her accomplishments and dreams, without allowing her death to overshadow her life. Shi explores her humble beginnings, from a family that took out loans to send her to an American university hoping for a better life, to her ambivalence about coming to a new country. Yingying’s diaries, written in her first six weeks in the country before her disappearance, chronicle feelings of being alone, her faith in others, fears, and eternal hope.
Shi’s ability to act as both director and translator for Yingying’s family, many of whom do not speak English, provide her with unfettered access. Yingying’s fiancé, Ziaolin, accompanies the family to America, acting as their spokesman in English, speaking powerfully and eloquently to the public. In one heart-wrenching scene he sings one of her favorite songs while playing guitar at a public memorial on campus.
The University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign has the largest population of Chinese students in the U.S. It remains to be seen what long-term impact this might have on enrollment, but the film shows Chinese students on campus taking more precautions and curtailing their activities. It leaves one to ask what proactive steps the university takes to acclimate this population to the cultural differences they inevitably encounter.
Finding Yingying does not over-sensationalize the true crime elements, but instead stays with the very human impact this crime has on those who knew Yingying: her classmates, friends, and family. Her influence on others, even friends on campus who knew her only a few weeks, is apparent. She had a tremendously warm soul and touched everyone she met.
Shi follows the family back to their small village in China, a year after her disappearance. Shi deftly captures, with tenderness and honesty, Yingying’s father’s feelings of guilt, the painful lies and rumors the family endures at the hands of neighbors and relatives, her brother’s suffering seeing his parents torn apart by anger and sadness, and the burden he carries trying to match the ambitions of his sister.
With a wealth of archival footage, Finding Yingying also explores the details of the investigation, search, and subsequent trial of the man accused in Yingying’s abduction and murder. It sheds light on what role, if any, the University of Illinois played in failing to prevent this tragedy. (In June of 2020, a judge tossed out the second lawsuit brought on behalf of Yingying against two university social workers who were accused of failing to intervene when the murderer expressed homicidal ideations, an especially chilling scene caught on video.)
With Finding Yingying, Shi brilliantly weaves together a tragic crime story with a sensitive, authentic family drama, peppering it with transcendent moments of hope and heroism. One unlikely character intimately connected to the murderer becomes an integral part in working with the authorities. A highlight of the film comes when this person finally meets with Yingying’s family.
The most impactful narrative of the film is voiced by the director reading passages from Yingying’s private journal. In her own words, she shares her dreams of wanting to take care of her family, to make enough money to support them, and to just be happy. With poetic turns of phrase, she expresses her love for her fiancé, her love of travel, and that she longs to measure the earth with her feet.
Finding Yingying is nothing short of extraordinary and will leave a lasting impact on everyone fortunate enough to see it. Yingying’s enduring ability to inspire can be summed up in a line from her journal: “Life is too short to be ordinary.” v