SXSW Exclusive Review: Finding Yingying

Year: 2020
Runtime: 97 minutes
Director: Jiayan “Jenny” Shi

By Erica Richards

As a self-proclaimed true-crime junkie, I have seen and heard many stories about missing women, whether it be from a documentary, podcast, or headline on the evening news. The assumption that the answer is obvious: the husband or boyfriend did it—duh!  This is so NOT the case with “Finding Yingying” 2020. Yingying is a 26-year old Chinese woman who went missing shortly after she moved from China to Champaign, Illinois to pursue her PhD at The University of Illinois. This story is raw and real, heartbreakingly told through many voices: news stories, authorities, the family, boyfriend, friends and colleagues.

Through Yingying’s diary entries, we are able to learn more about her, creating a backstory of her first 6-weeks in the United States. The words of her diary entries appear mostly in her native language—revealed over images of her; while a voiceover in English tells us her inner thoughts. She is independent, kind, caring, and incredibly smart. Quickly though, the story takes a turn that it won’t come back from, and we learn that Yingying has inexplicably disappeared. The rest of the story deals with her family trying to come to terms with her disappearance and what it could mean.  Without any answers for a very extended time, the family attempts to overcome cultural differences and the sadness of the reality of losing Yingying, possibly forever.

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“Jenny uses her camera in the most literal sense of the way, to capture every detail about Yingying’s story. Unlike many true crime documentaries that can get caught up in the suspect, the best and most important part of this documentary is that it never strays from Yingying and her family”

The unraveling of the story causes her family to unravel, too. There are moments when Yingying’s father holds his composure while her mother has a meltdown, and vise versa. It is tough and gut-wrenching to watch, although they never give up on trying to find her.  The fate of Yingying comes to fruition when there is a possibility that Yingying was kidnapped—in broad daylight—by another student, and possibly murdered. A rare opening statement in court from the suspects team and an unexpected witness will leave you in shock at what happened, how it happened, and why it happened.

The filmmaker, Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, takes careful consideration and delicately tells this story because of the personal connection she has with Yingying. They attended school together in China, and now Jenny is a journalism student in Illinois, too. When Yingying’s family arrives after she has gone missing, Jenny began to volunteer in the journey to find Yingying and helped the family with translation, too. Jenny started to document their searches, in hopes that the footage would help the case in some way. She even shares a first-hand experience that resonates with some of Yingying’s actions. This personal connection and brief story from the filmmaker, adds a special touch to this documentary.

Despite the slight confusion with voiceovers, due to no separation from the storytelling voiceover and Yingying’s diary entry voiceover—the film leaves no loose ends to tie up. There is a brief part where the story drags slightly repetitiveness—but overall the pacing throughout the the narrative makes up for this. Jenny uses her camera in the most literal sense of the way, to capture every detail about Yingying’s story. Unlike many true crime documentaries that can get caught up in the suspect, the best and most important part of this documentary is that it never strays from Yingying and her family. You will be thinking about them long after the final moments of this film.

4.5 stars

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