In 2017, Yingying Zhang went missing. A 2016 graduate of Peking University who travelled to the United States as a visiting scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Yingying was ambitious, intelligent, and, like many in her situation, often lonely. She left behind a mother and father, a sister and brother, and her boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou, who she had hoped to marry after he graduated. The event was tragic and senseless. Finding Yingying is an attempt to find something - meaning, solace, anything - within the tragedy.
Picking up just after Yingying’s father, sister, and boyfriend travel to the United States to look for her, Finding Yingying mostly eschews traditional “true crime” tropes, replacing intrigue with sympathy at nearly every turn. Director Jiayan “Jenny” Shi graduated from Peking University with Yingying, and, while studying journalism in the United States, joined the search effort, eventually deciding to document the process. This intimacy gives the film a more naturalistic feel, and it helps Shi avoid the perverse voyeurism that can often pervade similar investigative documentaries. Opening with the director reading clips from Yingying’s diary, Finding Yingying makes the necessary attempts to stay true to its title. But more often than not, it’s interested in the devastating impact this has on her family. Shi sticks with them even as they return home to China, forced to deal with an arcane, unfamiliar legal and political system from 7,000 miles away. This stretch of domestic frustration and Kafkaesque bureaucracy may feel out of place in a true crime film, but it mirrors the isolation felt by Yingying when she traveled alone to a foreign country to study photosynthesis and crop productivity. The director is herself a Chinese expat who left her family to study in the U.S.; she channels her own anxieties through the realities of Yingying’s story and her family. Finding Yingying occasionally feels in search of answers that don’t exist. Shi highlights a brief diary passage to demonstrate Yingying’s naive trust in others - perhaps an explanation for why she got into a strange man’s car. But the documentary is at its best when it accepts rather than fights reality, instead showing us the moments after the moment, the enduring tragedy for those who love Yingying. A solo guitar performance from Xiaolin at a memorial concert played on my heartstrings, but it’s a strange, revealing scene that explains why he has four guitars in his small Beijing apartment over a year later -- because several of them belonged to Yingying -- that left an enduring imprint on my memory. Whether the case is solved, the body recovered, or the crime explained, a small world of people’s lives are forever changed - Finding Yingying understands that.