In April of 2017, 26-year-old Zhang Yingying arrived at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to conduct research on photosynthesis and crop productivity, marking not only her latest big step toward her dream of running her own ecology team someday, but also the first time she had ever left her native China. Two months later, the bright and sensitive Yingying was missing, setting off a heartbreaking and often maddening series of events as the people who loved her most attempted to find out what had happened.
Those people included her former classmate Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, who set about making a documentary about the case almost as soon as it began, resulting in an intimate and immediate first feature hauntingly titled “Finding Yingying.”
Per the film’s official synopsis: “Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old Chinese student, comes to the U.S. to study at the University of Illinois. In her detailed and beautiful diaries, the aspiring young scientist and teacher is full of optimism, hoping to also be married and a mother someday. Within weeks of her arrival, Yingying disappears from the campus. Through exclusive access to Yingying’s family and boyfriend, ‘Finding Yingying’ closely follows their journey as they search to unravel the mystery of her disappearance and seek justice for their daughter while navigating a strange, foreign country. But most of all, ‘Finding Yingying’ is the story of who Yingying was: a talented young woman loved by her family and friends.”
“Finding Yingying” premiered at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, where Shi earned a Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Voice. In the following months, it’s enjoyed a robust run through (mostly virtual) festivals, winning further awards at Loudon Arts, Middlebury New Filmmakers, the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, the San Diego Asian Film Festival, and Chicago. Shi was selected as one of DOC NYC’s 40 Under 40 Honorees and recently made IndieWire’s own list of Breakout Women Directors to Know in 2020.
During this year’s virtual SXSW, IndieWire’s David Ehrlich wrote of the film, “‘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.”
The film is available in virtual cinemas today, and you can pick your favorite local cinema through which to watch it right here. Check out the first trailer and poster for “Finding Yingying,” available exclusively on IndieWire, below.