Leaving China for the first time in her short life, 26-year-old Zhang Yingying arrived at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in April 2017; she was there to conduct research on photosynthesis and crop productivity, and perhaps later enroll in the doctoral program before returning home to marry her lovely boyfriend Hou Xiaolin and run her own ecology team. “Life is too short to be ordinary,” she wrote in her diary, which was filled with self-affirmation but punctuated with stabs of homesickness and culture shock. Shortly after Yingying disappeared on June 9 of that same year, Jiayan “Jenny” Shi — a former classmate of Yingying’s in Nanping — began making a documentary about the Zhang family’s search for their missing daughter, which continued long after it was safe to assume the girl was dead. In some respects, it still hasn’t stopped.
In that light, the title of Shi’s handcrafted and haunting “Finding Yingying” only grows more beguiling as the film goes on — what is the documentary actually looking for? The most obvious answer would seem to be a body, but every horrifying detail we learn about her murder leaves us less convinced that Yingying’s corpse would bring about the closure that her family needs. Is it justice? Maybe: The killer is identified and made to stand trial, but the American legal system is painful and alien to the victim’s family, and the verdict doesn’t square with their own sense of crime and punishment. Some filmmakers might fall into the true crime trap of trying to solve the “mystery” of who Yingying was at heart, but Shi has precious little patience for ambiguity on that score, as her subject’s diary reconfirms what Yingying’s loved ones already knew to be true: She was a bright idealist with a beautiful spirit and an indefatigable self-belief that was only matched by her faith in other people.
Unfolding in the present tense as a missing persons case metastasizes into an international tragedy that spans the world’s two dominant superpowers, “Finding Yingying” was shot by someone who naturally hoped to answer all of the questions that might be raised by a case like this. But Shi’s film is at its most nuanced and unnerving — and also its most frustrating — when it leverages the difficult task of finding Yingying into an exploration of the singularly modern spaces exposed by her loss.
“Finding Yingying” initially sorts through the details of its namesake’s disappearance in straightforward fashion, as Shi is aided by a wealth of archival material. The director narrates the first portions of the film by reading from Yingying’s diary, introducing us to a positive and determined young woman who was hesitant to articulate her vulnerabilities even to herself. Yingying’s can-do attitude was only dimmed by how far away she was from her family, and the creeping sense that some Americans are too conditioned towards self-preservation to help a foreigner feel at home (she was upbeat in a way that wouldn’t allow her to spell that out, but her joy at meeting just one charitable stranger speaks volumes).
From there, much of the movie plays out in expected true crime fashion, as Shi combines ominous local news footage along with her own material in order to tell the story of Yingying’s disappearance — the tragic result of placing too much trust in the wrong samaritan. That’s when “Finding Yingying” undercuts the suspense of finding a suspect in favor of something far more harrowing, as Shi shifts her attention towards Yingying’s parents as they attempt to reclaim a semblance of their beloved daughter from another world; when Yingying’s father touches down in Chicago to look for her, it’s the first time he’s ever set foot outside of China.
It’s touching and excruciating in equal measure to watch as they rally the campus around their cause, but things tip exclusively towards bitter dislocation when the Zhang family returns home. The relationship between Yingying’s parents almost immediately calcifies into anger, as they blame America but take out their pain on each other; Shi doesn’t shy away from these difficult (and sometimes violent confrontations), as she uses her camera to probe into the tortured kind of grief that’s usually kept private. It’s the urgency and undauntedness of a natural filmmaker who’s closer to her story than might be safe, though Shi — sometimes to her detriment — is reluctant to focus on her role in this story. The documentary’s most loaded scene veers towards “Vertigo” territory, as Yingying’s mom starts to comment on the similarities between Sia and her missing daughter; it’s almost as if a sweetly distorted shadow of Yingying has returned home to film a void that nobody can fill.
However, if Shi makes herself into a symbol of all the losses that can’t be restored, her film is most affecting for its attention to the gaps that can be closed. “Finding Yingying” offers a searing personal view into the perils of globalism, but the documentary is just as receptive to its strange potential. Shi’s powerful and unexpected emotional climax doesn’t hinge on a breakthrough in the murder case, but rather a sitdown with a secondary character whose limited ability to break through the language barrier has a way of bridging the divides that separate China from America, and the Zhang family from their ability to process what happened to Yingying. Her parents may never be able to find her, but Shi’s tender documentary suggests their daughter is a lot closer than she once seemed.
“Finding Yingying” was set to premiere at SXSW 2020 before the festival was cancelled. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.