‘Finding Yingying’ Preserves Life Through Raw Endearment – Review
Yingying Zhang is a name many will probably not instantly recognize. The 26-year-old Chinese scholar came to the U.S to study ecology at the University of Illinois in April 2017. Full of aspiration, knowledge, and excitement, she came to the states in pursuit of the American dream. Traveling all the way from China, leaving her family and dedicated boyfriend behind, takes a unique kind of courage. The same bravery that countless other aspiring foreign students must grow when studying abroad. Merely weeks after her arrival, Yingying went missing to no one’s understanding. The story that would unfold within the next two years is heart-shattering, but nevertheless crucial in preserving her legacy and what it means for traveling students everywhere.
Jiayan “Jenny” Shi is the creative drive behind Finding Yingying. The young experienced documentarian and video journalist has truly created one of the most crucial watches of 2020. Shi graduated from Peking University in Beijing alongside Yingying in 2016. The two were former colleagues, but more importantly friends. Upon discovering her disappearance in 2017, Shi began the project that would become Finding Yingying. She and a crew document Yingying’s case in real-time. She follows the Zhang family as they travel back and forth from Illinois and China in search of their daughter. The camera does not miss a single key event – from the second they pinpoint a murder suspect, to the moment the perpetrator was finally sentenced in court mid-2019.
This is not an ordinary behind-the-scenes look or true-crime documentary – it is a raw study of human perseverance that comes from the heart. Viewers should be advised that this is far from an easy or passive watch. The hardest pill to swallow is often the most necessary. Heinous revelations in court make the disappearance of Yingying Zhang unlike most cases. Such a sensitive and heavy project could not present more obstacles for Shi to face as a filmmaker. Most of these hurdles stemming from morals and ethics. Shi has access to a plethora of resources with Yingying’s family, boyfriend, colleagues, personal diary, and law enforcement assigned to the case – but at what cost? What service does a documentary like this give to Yingying’s life?
Shi crafts her documentary with a special endgame, thus making what must have been two incomparable years of filming all the more worthwhile. Finding Yingying is just as much a documentation of Yingying’s case as it is a preservation of her life. Not exactly new for a documentary, but this one excels where others falter. Shi works in complete unison with loved ones to craft a sort of goodbye letter to the world on Yingying’s behalf. Shi utilizes diary entries, vivid recollection of memories, and explorations deep into Yingying’s past to give her a soulful presence within the film. Yingying’s studies also get their due spotlight, giving the audience an idea of where her career was headed. Viewers get to successfully know who the real Yingying was without ever meeting her.
Shi films in a very raw style, capturing every ounce of human emotion from her subjects. Many might find her style and choice of framing perhaps too raw at times. Some of the methods in which material is presented might also be deemed too melodramatic. Naturally, the subject matter for what it is can be unapologetically melodramatic. Finding Yingying reminds viewers that this is okay. What can be mistaken as unskillful filmmaking all plays into Shi’s profound vision. What comes from the soul is raw, unfiltered and often uncontrollable. If this film were to serve as a last goodbye for Yingying, would she not deserve the most honest expressions from those tasked with delivering it? It would be unjust of Shi to not practice this sentiment as a creative lead.
What cannot be understated is Finding Yingying‘s role in bridging a cultural divide. The sad truth is that many foreign students (especially of Asian descent) in the U.S. are victims of systematic marginalization. Left to fend for themselves in a taboo world with no other expectations but success. These students would not be so inclined to study abroad if favorable opportunities did not present themselves. Is it not until they arrive in the States that they realize that the country demands them to work extraneously more than locals. Finding Yingying highlights the importance of building solidarity with traveling students. As seen with Yingying’s family, it turns out borders do not always define people so differently after all.
The work between Shi and the Zhang family could not be more moving. Their journey these past two years is indescribable, for them to expose their inner workings to the barest degree in front of the camera is simply inspirational. They remind viewers that against all odds, the human spirit perseveres through unity. Despite facing the worst of culture clash during the loss of their daughter, they graciously demonstrate how their views on life from China are not so different from anyone in the states. However, what is different from both countries is how government carries out the law. Finding Yingying brutally exhibits how neither side can tout righteousness when their judicial and social systems are far from perfect.
This labor of love asserts that Yingying’s life was not one squandered. Even though cut short by means out of her control, she did not leave in vain. May her story set an example for the dire need to close cultural divides. Shi adds to her everlasting presence on earth with this brute of a documentary. In retrospect, no other person could make a film this beautiful and full-bodied than Shi. Its rawness cannot be replicated for it derives from the purest resources. Compelling, heartfelt, and just as frustrating to watch – Finding Yingying not only makes for one of the most essential watches of the year but also for the sake of much-needed change.