At 26 years old, Yingying Zhang flew across the world from China to Illinois, USA to pursue her education and get a PhD. This is how we’re first introduced to Yingying: smiling and excited at the airport with her parents. Mere weeks later, on her way to work, Yingying gets into a car, under the guise of a lift. She is never seen again.
While Finding Yingying has all the elements of any great true crime documentary, director Jiayan “Jenny” Shi takes a different approach: instead of a cold opening of a 911 emergency call, the film begins with excerpts from Yingying’s diary, photos of her life. Immediately, Yingying becomes a central focus, whose disappearance and loss will haunt the rest of the film. It is a testament to the strength of her character that through a few select excerpts and testimonies from friends and family that Yingying is able to leave such an impression on the viewer, and a further demonstration of Shi’s dedication to Yingying and her memory.
Oftentimes true crime documentaries can lean slightly too hard into the sensationalism of such events, and oftentimes the privacy of the victim pays the price. Shi does no such thing in this film: each excerpt from Yingying’s journal is chosen with care, there’s no needless trawling through phones or social media. Her film is a tribute to Yingying, not an examination of her. What results is an emotional core and integrity often sacrificed in others of the genre.
In a time borderline overrun with true crime documentaries, podcasts and TV shows, Finding Yingying is a standout, if only for the total dedication to the title: finding Yingying. Yingying, her family and the emotional fallout resulting from her disappearance is the sole focus; there is no theorizing about motive or method, no shift of focus to the perpetrator instead of the victim. The lack of focus on Yingying’s abductor is both refreshing but deeply cutting, and a stark reminder of the human lives that lie behind sensational stories or true crime podcasts.
Raw and intimate, Shi’s verite style and close contact with the family, plus her understanding of the situation both Yingying and her family are in, creates a striking portrait of both love and unfathomable loss. One striking moment occurs halfway through the film when Shi visits Yingying’s parents in China, a year after her disappearance. What follows is a heartbreaking look at the after effects of such a tragedy and a justice system that leaves people in the dark.
Perhaps what elevates Finding Yingying above other true crime documentaries is the incredible closeness Shi shares with Yingying. They both graduated from Peking University in the same year, by some insane happenstance, and they both also chose to go to Illinois for their graduate degrees, albeit in different fields. Shi heard of Yingying’s disappearance and volunteered to help, which is when she began to film the events that transpired. However more disturbing than the crazy coincidences that took place for this film to have been, is the fact that it could have just as easily been Shi that was the victim.
Somber and mournful as this documentary is, Shi still finds a way to end on a somewhat optimistic note. She finds heroes of the everyday who helped Yingying’s case besides law enforcement, and she shows the slow, slow mending of hearts that must take place after such a catastrophic and life-altering event takes place. And though it’s slow, and undoubtedly painful, still the piecing back together of broken hearts occurs. It feels, in many ways, like a final tribute to Yingying.