CIFF Review: Finding yingying

Year: 2020

Runtime: 98 minutes

Director: Jiayan ‘Jenny’ Shi

By Jenni Holtz

“Life is too short to be ordinary.” — Yingying Zhang, 2017

“Finding Yingying” (2020) had its Chicago premiere at the 56th Annual Chicago International Film Festival. The documentary follows the extensive, heart-wrenching search for Yingying Zhang, a 26 year old Chinese student at a university in Illinois who went missing from a bus stop just weeks after moving to the United States. Director Jiayan ‘Jenny’ Shi began filming the search for the missing student shortly after it began, capturing life-altering events in real time as the Zhang family visited the United States for the first time, the university community took up the search, and international students voiced their concern for their safety. 

In the search for Yingying, her family and friends realize the multitude of ways she touched the lives of those around her. Footage from the search for her is mixed in with interviews of her loved ones, readings from Yingying’s journal, and the devastating facts of the case. Rather than focusing on the horrible details of her murder, Shi unpacks the far-reaching impact of Yingying’s life and just how devastating the loss is for her family, friends, university community, and international students in similar circumstances to her.

Shi saw herself in Yingying — they both moved from China to the United States for college, filled with dreams and drive to make them happen, enough to make the hard decision of moving across the globe from their family base. With the camera in Shi’s hands, the film feels intimate and deeply human, an element that can be so easily lost in true crime documentaries. “I wanted to allow the audience to feel that they were experiencing the painful and challenging journey along with the family,” Shi said about her filmmaking choices. Shi succeeded in this, making a documentary that shows the massive impact that violence against women has on communities. 

“Finding Yingying” is a true crime documentary with heart, mixing elements of a traditional procedural with an honest, moving examination of what justice means. Both intimate and informative, the film honors Yingying as a person while grappling with the grieving process in real time. Beautiful, thought-provoking, and deeply saddening, “Finding Yingying” is an essential documentary that highlights the wide range of reactions and impact when a young woman of color has her life taken far too soon. 


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